Skip to main content
norman spector

Over on his Maclean's blog, I see that Andrew Coyne confronts pundits who've been hinting that David Johnston's role in drafting the Oliphant commission's terms of reference compromises his ability to act impartially in a future coalition-type dispute. And, for the most part, I agree with him.

That said, Coyne goes too far in suggesting that Mr. Johnston is not tainted by having precluded the commission from chasing down the $20-million in commissions Airbus paid Mr. Schreiber - some of which ended up in the cash-stuffed envelopes handed to Brian Mulroney. (There's no evidence that Mr. Mulroney knew about the source of the funds.)

As Maclean's reported at the time, David Johnston was on Brian Mulroney's short-list for clerk of the privy council after the 1984 election. Later, Mr. Mulroney appointed him chairman of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, in which capacity he reported directly to the prime minister.

In light of this background, Mr. Harper should never have appointed Mr. Johnston to draft the terms of reference of a commission that was being set up to look into Mr. Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber. Offered the job by Mr. Harper, Mr. Johnston should have been sensitive to the potential for apprehension of bias, and should have politely declined.

Coyne does not dispute that the Oliphant commission's terms of reference were inadequate and unfortunate. However, he attributes Mr. Johnston's recommendation to exclude Airbus from the mandate to "an error of judgement."

Perhaps Coyne is right in this assessment.

However, Mr. Johnston himself has never explained how he came to the conclusion that the Airbus investigation was already "well-tilled ground"; indeed, he refused a number of requests by journalists to explain that statement as well as the recommendations that flowed from it. It would be good for Mr. Johnston personally - and good for the office of governor-general - either to provide that explanation now or to apologize for his "error of judgement."