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Julie Payette's first year as governor general: critics say turbulent … – National Post

Months after reports emerged about concerns over how Payette was handling the job there are mixed views about whether the situation has improved
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.
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A review of my first year as Governor General that we are putting online a little earlier than planned! 😉
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.
She takes her responsibilities seriously
“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 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 longstanding 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.”
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