Payette calls Year 1 ‘quite a ride’ while oth­ers see it as tur­bu­lent

GOV­ER­NOR GEN­ERAL RE­SPONDS TO CRIT­I­CISM SHE’S HAD TROU­BLE AD­JUST­ING TO PUB­LIC ROLE

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - Brian Platt and Marie-danielle SMith

Last Oc­to­ber, one week be­fore the an­niver­sary of Julie Payette’s swear­ing in as gov­er­nor gen­eral, her Twit­ter ac­count pub­lished a three-minute video show­ing footage of the for­mer as­tro­naut per­form­ing her du­ties, sound­tracked by elec­tronic mu­sic.

“A re­view of my first year as gov­er­nor gen­eral that we are put­ting on­line a lit­tle ear­lier than planned!” said the tweet, which in­cluded a wink­ing emoji.

“Thank you, fel­low Cana­di­ans. It was quite a ride. But you know me. I like rides,” said Payette, ad­dress­ing the cam­era at the end of the video. “Now, there is still a lot to do. Things to im­prove. Peo­ple to see. So, on to the next.”

The rushed re­lease of the video was the first salvo in what would be­come a months-long pub­lic re­la­tions push, launched in re­sponse to a flood of cov­er­age from the Na­tional Post and other me­dia in the pre­ced­ing weeks that had made pub­lic some of the crit­i­cisms and con­cerns over Payette’s first year in of­fice.

Based on ex­ten­sive con­ver­sa­tions with a dozen sources with di­rect knowl­edge of Rideau Hall dur­ing Payette’s first year, the Post had re­ported that when the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice had be­come en­am­oured with the idea of mak­ing a fe­male as­tro­naut gov­er­nor gen­eral, it failed to fully vet and pre­pare Payette for the role. The job had proven a poor fit for some­one so fiercely pro­tec­tive of her pri­vacy and per­sonal time, and Payette was en­gaged in a con­stant strug­gle against the con­fines and ex­pec­ta­tions of the of­fice.

Through that PR push, which played out in pub­lic ap­pear­ances, on so­cial me­dia and in a se­ries of me­dia in­ter­views, Rideau Hall tried to es­tab­lish that Payette was not as unhappy in the job as sources had de­scribed, that she re­spected the tra­di­tions and pro­to­cols that come with the of­fice and that ac­counts of the slow pace of work un­der Payette were just a re­sult of poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

How­ever, among the sources who spoke with the Post — who have been granted anonymity in or­der to dis­cuss mat­ters about which they are not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly — there are mixed views about whether the sit­u­a­tion has in fact im­proved.

The on­slaught of neg­a­tive cov­er­age in the Post and other me­dia out­lets was dif­fi­cult on Rideau Hall staff, sources said. Other gover­nors gen­eral have seen their share of con­tro­ver­sies, but none had seen a first year as rocky as Payette’s.

Two sources with knowl­edge of Rideau Hall in­de­pen­dently used the phrase “witch hunt” to de­scribe an ef­fort car­ried out at Rideau Hall in the wake of the Post’s re­port­ing to try to fig­ure out who had been talk­ing to the press. A third source said the me­dia cov­er­age did not ap­pear to prompt much change in­ter­nally, and felt Payette still lacks “a re­al­is­tic un­der­stand­ing of what the role is.”

Yet some Rideau Hall staff felt re­lief that the ten­sions were fi­nally be­ing aired, ac­cord­ing to one source. It prompted Payette to start be­com­ing more pub­licly vis­i­ble and ac­ces­si­ble. She has since put more ef­fort into manag­ing her im­age and mes­sage as gov­er­nor gen­eral, some­thing ad­vis­ers had un­suc­cess­fully urged her to do in the past.

Over the past few months, Payette has given more me­dia in­ter­views than dur­ing the en­tire first year of her ten­ure. Her so­cial me­dia ac­counts have been en­gag­ing and ac­tive; her Twit­ter ac­count was 60 per cent more ac­tive this au­tumn, in the af­ter­math of the me­dia re­ports, than it was in fall 2017. She has dou­bled down on her po­si­tion, say­ing she is proud to have been ap­pointed to her role and has no in­ten­tion of leav­ing it.

She did ad­mit in a late Septem­ber CTV in­ter­view that she knew lit­tle about the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of gov­er­nor gen­eral be­fore say­ing yes, within 24 hours, to the prime min­is­ter’s re­quest. She ac­knowl­edged there have been “mis­steps,” but also said it has been a pro­duc­tive year and her chal­lenge over the next few months would be to “com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter.”

In a De­cem­ber in­ter­view with The Cana­dian Press, Payette re­jected the premise that she’d had a “tur­bu­lent” first year in of­fice, a word the Post used to de­scribe it. “It was very busy — very, very busy — but tur­bu­lent? That’s an in­ter­est­ing ad­jec­tive,” she told CP. “Maybe what caught me by sur­prise is that I have never been in a set­ting where you have to talk about what you’re do­ing.”

And in a French in­ter­view with Ra­dio-Canada, she sug­gested that she is be­ing held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard be­cause she is a woman. She re­jected com­par­isons to pre­vi­ous gover­nors gen­eral, not­ing she came in as a sin­gle mother of a teenager, and said she often works 12-hour days, re­cently work­ing for 20 days straight with­out a break.

Payette de­clined to speak to the Post. In re­sponse to a list of ques­tions for this story, her spokes­woman, Ash­lee Smith, de­clined to an­swer in specifics. (Smith was hired this fall as a press sec­re­tary for Payette specif­i­cally, not Rideau Hall, the in­sti­tu­tion that hosts the gov­er­nor gen­eral. This is not un­prece­dented; Adri­enne Clark­son, for ex­am­ple, also hired a per­sonal press sec­re­tary.)

“It is un­clear as to why the Na­tional Post, alone, con­tin­ues to pur­sue this un­sub­stan­ti­ated nar­ra­tive, when the gov­er­nor gen­eral has demon­strated through­out the year that she takes her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties se­ri­ously and is com­mit­ted to serv­ing Cana­di­ans in an ac­tive and ef­fi­cient man­ner,” said the state­ment.

"The gov­er­nor gen­eral has pri­or­i­tized ini­tia­tives that fo­cus on team­work, mod­ern­iza­tion, knowl­edge and cu­rios­ity. From the mo­ment she took of­fice, she in­tro­duced tech­nol­ogy and im­ple­mented ag­ile and rig­or­ous pro­cesses to help em­power em­ploy­ees, fos­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion, and en­sure that noth­ing is missed at Rideau Hall.

“The gov­er­nor gen­eral feels priv­i­leged to be work­ing with the ded­i­cated and pro­fes­sional team at Rideau Hall and to­gether we are focused on pro­vid­ing re­sults for Cana­di­ans.”

In most in­ter­views, Payette has at­trib­uted the prob­lems from her first year to lack­lus­tre com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Af­ter the pace of events was crit­i­cized in mul­ti­ple me­dia out­lets, Rideau Hall staff added a no­tice to the web­site’s cal­en­dar of events that says in bold, un­der­lined font: “This list is not ex­haus­tive.”

How­ever, the prob­lems went be­yond com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Sources who have been close to Rideau Hall for decades said the pace of events had slowed sig­nif­i­cantly un­der Payette, es­pe­cially when it came to hon­ours events and cer­e­monies. The gov­er­nor gen­eral’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in some events last year — such as the Mich­ener Awards, which rec­og­nize pub­lic ser­vice jour­nal­ism — was scaled back at Rideau Hall’s re­quest.

This was due in part to Payette’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to guard her per­sonal time, but there were also in­ter­nal is­sues that made it dif­fi­cult for staff to plan. A few months af­ter she took of­fice, Payette blocked her elec­tronic cal­en­dar from the view of Rideau Hall staff, ac­cord­ing to two sources. In­stead of staff be­ing able to look up what the gov­er­nor gen­eral had booked over the next weeks or months, most of the cal­en­dar now just said “Pri­vate.” Re­cently the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved, with staff hav­ing ac­cess to more of Payette’s sched­ule.

There were also cer­tain things Payette felt strongly about do­ing, but that nec­es­sar­ily meant less time for Rideau Hall func­tions. In the first week of Oc­to­ber, she vis­ited France to at­tend a wine club event as the guest of hon­our, though Rideau Hall con­firmed it was a “per­sonal” trip that she paid for her­self. In De­cem­ber, she trav­elled to Kaza­khstan to view the launch of Cana­dian as­tro­naut David Saint-Jac­ques into space. Sources had dif­fer­ing views on

NOW, THERE IS STILL A LOT TO DO. THINGS TO IM­PROVE. PEO­PLE TO SEE.

this; some saw it as an un­der­stand­able pri­or­ity for a for­mer as­tro­naut, but one source called it an “in­dul­gence” that re­quired the re-sched­ul­ing of many Rideau Hall events.

The Kaza­khstan trip fea­tured of­fi­cial func­tions in­clud­ing a meet­ing with the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, de­spite the two coun­tries hav­ing lit­tle re­la­tion­ship. A re­lease from the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice said Payette would meet the pres­i­dent and other se­nior of­fi­cials “to deepen the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our two coun­tries,” and would also meet “promi­nent Kaza­khstani women lead­ers to dis­cuss the im­por­tance of gen­der equal­ity.” One source sug­gested the func­tions were added at the in­sis­tence of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice to jus­tify the trip. Nei­ther Rideau Hall nor the PMO would con­firm that con­tention.

Sources made the point that it comes down to pri­or­i­ties, as gover­nors gen­eral will al­ways have heavy de­mands on their time. In Septem­ber, at the height of neg­a­tive me­dia re­ports, the Winnipeg Free Press re­ported that Payette was break­ing with tra­di­tion by not vis­it­ing Man­i­toba within the first year of her man­date.

Canada’s Na­tional His­tory So­ci­ety, mean­while, put out a no­tice that they had been in­formed Payette was not avail­able to pre­side over the Gov­er­nor’s Gen­eral His­tory Awards — which would be the first such ab­sence in the award’s his­tory. Mul­ti­ple me­dia out­lets re­ported on an un­usu­ally lengthy de­lay for non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions to find out whether or not Payette would be their hon­orary pa­tron, by long-stand­ing tra­di­tion.

Payette’s first visit to Man­i­toba came in late Novem­ber. Af­ter some ne­go­ti­a­tions, a so­lu­tion was found for the his­tory awards, which will take place much later than usual — on Jan. 28 — but will now have Payette pre­sid­ing. Pa­tron­ages have been granted.

She has con­tin­ued to sit in on Or­der of Canada meet­ings to watch an ad­vi­sory coun­cil de­lib­er­ate on which Cana­di­ans should be rec­og­nized, de­spite hon­ours ex­perts and her own staff strongly ad­vis­ing against it.

“There con­tin­ues to be mi­cro­man­age­ment and in­ter­fer­ence in the hon­ours process, which is not ap­pro­pri­ate,” one source fa­mil­iar with the of­fice said.

Mean­while, Payette now has other tricky is­sues to man­age. Af­ter the Post re­vealed that for­mer gover­nors gen­eral are still billing tax­pay­ers for their ex­penses, in­clud­ing up to $200,000 in some years for Adri­enne Clark­son alone, Rideau Hall and the PMO are con­duct­ing a re­view, some­thing Payette sup­ports. She told Ra­dio-Canada in De­cem­ber that she’s not sure such a pro­gram needs to ex­ist.

For as long as Payette remains in of­fice, she will have her crit­ics — many of whom feel she is sim­ply the wrong per­son­al­ity for the job. And for as long as she has her crit­ics, opin­ions will vary on whether the com­plaints are valid con­cerns about the func­tion­ing of a sto­ried in­sti­tu­tion at the core of Canada’s gov­ern­ment, or sim­ply gripes that she is do­ing things her own way.

But it ap­pears at least one ques­tion has been firmly an­swered: Payette is here to stay. She told The Cana­dian Press she has no in­ten­tion of leav­ing be­fore her five-year term is up and will spend that time boldly “go­ing to places where other gov­er­nor gen­er­als be­fore me did not have a chance to go.”

JUSTIN TANG / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette has drawn some crit­i­cism in her first year for what has been viewed as a slow work pace but in­sists that is more of a com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem than re­al­ity.

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