Imagine you had a friend who happened to be the prime minister. Imagine you occasionally babysat the prime minister’s kids, one of whom would later attend the university you ran before becoming prime minister himself. Imagine you were then a member of the foundation that bore his late father’s name.
It would only be natural for you to have a soft spot for him, no?
That former governor-general David Johnston has been unable, or refuses, to see that his decades-long connection with the Trudeau family made him an inappropriate choice to serve as the effective arbiter of the Prime Minister’s political fate has become his tragedy – and ours.
It has been painful to watch Mr. Johnston, a heretofore model Canadian with an unimpeachable record, twist himself in knots trying to dissociate himself from Justin Trudeau, as if their previous encounters were mere coincidences that have no bearing on his personal feelings for the man. It is even worse to see him drag a former Supreme Court justice (who is also his friend) into the mix to try back him up.
Whether or not his relationship with Mr. Trudeau meets the legal definition of a conflict of interest, Mr. Johnston should understand that enough Canadians have serious reservations about his impartiality to undermine the very trust in our institutions that he himself has deemed essential to our democracy.
Instead, Mr. Johnston has refused to entertain the possibility that his judgment might be clouded in the matter of Mr. Trudeau’s handling of foreign interference allegations, or at least that there is a broad perception among reasonable Canadians that it might be. You can take issue with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s tasteless attacks on Mr. Johnston’s integrity, but he should have seen it coming. Everything that preceded his nomination suggested this would get nasty. We live in churlish times.
It would have been better if he had said no to Mr. Trudeau’s invitation to become his special rapporteur on foreign interference and recommended the appointment of someone without his baggage. As it is, Mr. Johnston has allowed himself to become entangled in an epic political battle in an era of hypercharged polarization, misinformation and great-power competition in which ”facts” can often be very hard to come by. The genteel world of trust in government officials, on which Mr. Johnston bases his findings, no longer exists, if it ever did.
Make no mistake, the main conclusion of Mr. Johnston’s first report released Tuesday – that a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections is not needed – is a huge political win for Mr. Trudeau and will be seen by most Canadians as such.
A public inquiry that compelled testimony from members of the Trudeau government would be devastating for the Liberals. There has been a Keystone Kops aspect to leaks in the media about how intelligence on foreign interference did or did not make its way up the chain of command, and what was done with it when it did. An inquiry would reinforce such impressions.
Mr. Johnston would have Canadians believe that the Trudeau government was neither negligent nor incompetent in its handling of foreign interference. “I have found that the narrative that the government failed to act is not a fair conclusion based on the facts,” Mr. Johnston writes. But he makes this assertion not because the government or Mr. Trudeau acted, but because “even when one develops an appreciation for the direction in which the intelligence is pointing, very little is directly actionable.”
Mr. Johnston may go into greater detail on this question in the confidential annex to his report that he has made available to the cabinet, senior civil servants and intelligence officials, as well as “those opposition leaders who choose to get cleared to see Top Secret material.” (NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said yes to the offer, while Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have rejected it as an attempt to silence them.)
Still, no matter what detail he provides in the non-public version of his report, it could not match the scope and depth of a public inquiry (with in-camera hearings where necessary to protect national security secrets and intelligence officials) that could compel witnesses and cross-examine them. The public hearings Mr. Johnston intends to hold before submitting his final report this fall are no substitute for a quasi-judicial investigation of foreign interference.
“These hearings will not focus on ‘who knew what and what did they do about it,’” Mr. Johnston writes. But Canadians, and especially Chinese-Canadians who are the main target of China’s efforts to meddle in our democracy, are owed more than a listening tour.
They are owed the truth, and Mr. Johnston cannot deliver it.