OTTAWA – When David Johnston takes on a cabinet-level trade assignment this weekend in Latin America, it will be a showcase for what could be the unoffical slogan for his vice-regal reign: bland is beautiful.
The Governor General is quick to point out he means bland as in an effective — if stealthy — exercise of his powers as the Sovereign’s representative in Canada.
“This office probably works best when it is rather invisible. Not terribly much involved in controversy. Out of the mainstream of politics. And, I suppose, somewhat bland,” Johnston said in a Rideau Hall interview prior to leaving for Mexico City.
Make no mistake: Johnston knows he lacks the panache and media punch of his two most recent predecessors, Michaelle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson. And it doesn’t bother him a bit.
He’s exchanged the effervescent public profile of those who came before him for something else: access to the prime minister on policy issues.
The trade-off has been a dearth of media attention. Johnston’s office has been quietly lobbying the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa to pay more attention to his scheduled events.
Still, it would be a mistake to confuse “bland” for “vacuous,” warns foreign policy analyst Colin Robertson.
“He lacks the charisma of his predecessors, but intellectually, he’s a rock star,” Robertson said. “The big shift is that Harper has confidence in Johnston. They talk.”
The white-haired former law professor and university president was tapped by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010, when minority governments were the norm and constitutional questions an ever-present element of Canadian politics.
Amid today’s calmer political waters, though, Johnston is quietly expanding his other roles — promoting volunteerism, travelling the world and speaking about how Canada should become a “smart and caring nation.”
Johnston, who is writing a manual on Canadian securities regulation in his spare time, is unapologetically geeky about his passion for international trade and innovation.
He’s also a details person: Johnston meticulously rehearsed his ceremonial Grey Cup kick-off at least 100 times, perfecting his strike to the point that he could barely walk down the stairs the next day.
So when Harper asked him to go to Mexico, Peru and Guatemala, he methodically set about learning not just the intricacies of the region’s economics and politics, but also carefully assessing how his own presence can complement the efforts of other Canadian business and political leaders.
“One tries to get to know the countries one is visiting as well as one can,” he said, describing how he works in tandem with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office to determine goals and priorities.
“It’s not a one-off. It’s many different parts working in harmony.”
Johnston fully appreciates the pomp and circumstance. His overriding goal in visiting Mexico is to “pay respect” to the democratic election of Enrique Pena Nieto — the head of the traditional ruling party PRI, which lost power in 2000 after 71 years at the helm.
For the PRI to make a legitimate comeback, said Johnston, “that’s a great victory.”
But once the ceremony is over, Johnston’s hard work begins.
He said he intends to start by buttonholing several of the other 75 foreign leaders at the ceremony to discuss bilateral relations. Then, he’ll turn his attention to increasing two-way trade trade and investment. He also hopes to find more ways to share Canadian expertise in mining, justice, policing and governance.
He is travelling with a sizable entourage of senior officials, members of Parliament, business and education representatives, a judge and several ambassadors.
When he gets back, he’ll be reporting, in detail, straight to the prime minister. The two men speak and share ideas regularly, but after a foreign trip, Johnston has a formal responsibility to check in.
“When I come back, (I need to) be pretty candid and say, ‘Yep, this is going well,’ or, ‘No, this is not going well and here’s where we have to adjust our approaches,'” Johnston said.
The governor-general’s trip to Latin America should be the beginning of a larger Canadian attempt to revive its relationship with the region, Robertson said.
“The flag isn’t as present as it could be.”
In Guatemala, Johnston will be looking at how Canada can help the country’s police and judicial system to deal with the drug trafficking that is destabilizing the entire region.
Ottawa’s decision to send the governor-general there is exactly the right level of engagement at this point, Robertson said.
Johnston’s staff have a thorough understanding of what’s at stake there, and can make some solid recommendations for a path forward, he added.