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The Governor General and parking officers alike must be careful with their words: Keenan

Whether Julie Payette and Kyle Ashley are right or wrong in their opinions, or even just stating facts, is not the point. They both have powerful jobs— and taking shots at others undermines the justice system.

With great power comes great responsibility for both Governor General Julie Payette and Kyle Ashley, a Toronto Police Service parking officer.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld, Metro News/ Eduardo Lima

With great power comes great responsibility for both Governor General Julie Payette and Kyle Ashley, a Toronto Police Service parking officer.

Every kid with a Spider-Man comic learns quickly that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Sometimes that responsibility can be a drag. But it’s still a good lesson. And it’s one Julie Payette, the Governor-General of Canada, and Kyle Ashley, a Toronto Police Service parking officer, have had reinforced for them over the past week.

Payette has been subject to some chatter and debate because during a speech about science at a conference she was interpreted as being dismissive and insulting to some people — “so many people,” she said — who still question things such as: human-made climate change; whether life evolved naturally and randomly instead of being created through 'divine intervention'; the curative power of 'sugar pills', or the predictions of horoscopes.

Ashley, who focuses on bike-lane infractions in his parking enforcement work, has had his popular Twitter account suspended while the service investigates the appropriateness of some of his tweets.

While the police haven’t said which tweets might have crossed a line, there was one a while back in which he said of Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti’s penny pinching opposition to bike lanes: “I don’t want to pay his salary. But I do."

A more recent tweet called an MPP’s proposed distracted walking law “dribble.”

In both Payette and Ashley’s cases, many people (mostly those who agree with them and think what they said shouldn’t be controversial) have stood up to defend their freedom of speech.

“They were just expressing the truth!” is the rallying cry. Payette is a scientist — an astronaut! — expressing scientific knowledge. Ashley patrols bike lanes and is just speaking out on behalf of their safety! Their defenders, in fact, seem to suggest more people in such positions should speak out in the same way.

I’m not sure that’s a good idea. At least in part because they weren’t just speaking the truth as they see it, but were explicitly taking shots with those who disagree with them.

I should point out I am among those who think that the substance of what both said is true. In fact, I have said similar things, in much stronger and sometimes more insulting language, as what they’ve said, and about the very same people.

But that’s my job. I’m an opinion columnist. Payette and Ashley have different jobs. Powerful jobs, in some respects. Ones that come with certain responsibilities.

Take, for instance, the Governor General of Canada. This is a position that seems almost powerless, until suddenly, periodically, its holder has tremendous power.

That is, most of the time, the role of the Governor General is ceremonial: making speeches and attending events and handing out awards for high achievement, generally making people feel good about being Canadian, if she can.

But whenever there is a crisis of legitimacy in Parliament, often in a minority government situation, she needs to make a huge and important decision about whether to allow one party or another to govern, whether to grant a request to prorogue parliament or force the prime minister to face the house, whether to call an election or ask an opposition party to form the government.

This is an appointed position — she has no democratic mandate to hold this power. Like a judge, her legitimacy rests solely on whether she is seen as impartial and non-partisan, rendering judgment in a crisis based purely on the wise application of the constitution.

Both of these roles, as a national mascot most of the time and as the One Vote to Rule Them All in times of crisis, kind of require the Governor General to be seen as above — or at least outside of — political debates. Because of this, it’s traditional and expected that the person holding that position should not express personal opinions on issues that are subject to partisan debate.

If Payette looks like she’s on someone’s side on the issues, that could colour her judgment — and would likely colour the perception of it — when she has to pick which side governs the country.

And when she does, reasonably, express her own worldview and ideas about things, she might at the very least attempt not to be dismissive or insulting of people who disagree. Payette represents those people, “so many people” in her own estimation, and may be called upon to make constitutional decisions that would put them in power or keep them from it. How the Governor General portrays them, and how they feel portrayed by her, can become an actual issue of parliamentary legitimacy.

Members of the Toronto Police Service wield a different kind of authority, obviously. They enforce the laws. They wear uniforms that indicate their role, a good many of them are armed and authorized to use force in a variety of situations. (Though, note, parking officers like Ashley do not carry guns.) We give members of the police service power in order that they may protect us from danger and apprehend those who break the law.

It is an absolute requirement of that role that they enforce the law as our democratically elected lawmakers have written it, “without fear or favour,” as former chief Bill Blair used to put it. Impartially, apolitically, and without prejudice, to the extent that they can.

That human beings often fail to live up to this mandate is not a reason to disregard it. Because of the power they wield in society (and the respect that authority bestows on them), police need to remain officially neutral on civic political debates. They need to submit to the authority of the governments they serve whether they like them or not, enforce laws whether they disagree with them or not, and respect the role of elected lawmakers who decide on those laws, whether they like to or not.

We’re not too far, in this city, from the days when members of the police force publicly called then-mayor John Sewell a “fag” and campaigned against him in uniform because they didn’t like his policies. We’re not too far from members of the police force spying on a member of the police services board because they didn’t like her oversight. We’re not too far from police endorsing candidates for mayor in Toronto.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks past Canada's 29th Governor General Julie Payette following his speech during her installation ceremony, in Ottawa on Monday, October 2, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks past Canada's 29th Governor General Julie Payette following his speech during her installation ceremony, in Ottawa on Monday, October 2, 2017.

“Bike lanes are good!” “Mammoliti draws a taxpayer-funded salary!” These kinds of expressions of opinion seem harmless — or even laudable — when you agree with their substance. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how, were these people expressing a different opinion on a different controversial subject (or person), we would think it radically inappropriate.

And it’s important to note that whether Payette and Ashley are right or wrong in their opinions, or even just stating facts, is not the point. In case it is not obvious: It is entirely possible to speak the truth in ways that are inappropriate. I am mostly bald and my teeth are crooked — these are facts about me — but it would be insulting and likely inappropriate for someone to focus on speaking these truths in, say, an employment performance review, or in most social situations.

No one expects Payette and Ashley and others in similar positions to lie. But their jobs require a certain amount of diplomacy, and reserve, and that they attempt to stay out of active political debates and controversies. When called upon to express an expert opinion relevant to their jobs, it is incumbent on them to be respectful and gentle in expressing it, even while expressing it clearly.

Laugh lines beginning with “can you believe some people still think…” don’t fit the bill. Neither do personal attacks on specific city councillors.

Neither of these cases appears worthy, to me, of more than a minor controversy — one remedied by a bit of discussion. To determine whether what they said or did crossed a line, or crossed it by much, but most urgently reminding us that there is a line and they need to be aware of it, for good reasons. That’s the discussion we’re having now — and I’d hope the consequences for the people involved don’t go beyond hearing the discussion and learning from it.

It isn’t an injustice that people in those positions need to be reserved when expressing their opinions on controversial or political subjects. Because of the authority they wield, their reserve is part of how justice is preserved.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

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