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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters before a meeting of the Liberal caucus in Ottawa, on May 31.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Your honour, may I approach the bench?

You may, counsel.

I hesitate to raise the matter, but should you be really be hearing this case?

I beg your pardon?

I know I’m the plaintiff’s lawyer, but I couldn’t help noticing how friendly you are with counsel for the defendant. I looked it up, and it turns out, not only have you been lifelong pals, but he hired you to do some work for him a couple of years ago. You were also an adviser to his family charity – and he was a major donor to yours.

Young man, are you questioning my integrity?

Well no, I’m just saying –

In 30 years on the bench I’ve never heard it suggested I was not impartial!

I’m just saying maybe you shouldn’t take this case.

I respect your point of view. But I’m only on this case because the defendant picked me.

Well no, it could never happen, could it? In other fields, when someone has an obvious conflict of interest, they are generally required to recuse themselves. Only in politics is it considered a plus.

The Chinese interference scandal has gone through several phases. First it was a national security crisis: The revelation, through leaked intelligence memos, that China had been attempting, by a variety of means, allegedly to interfere with Canadian democracy – with the aim of helping the Liberals and hurting the Conservatives; that although the Trudeau government had received specific warnings of this by Canadian intelligence, it had taken no action to stop it, not even to warn its intended targets; that in fact the party itself may have been infiltrated.

Then it became an accountability crisis. Rather than answer the questions raised by the intelligence leaks, the government spent weeks stonewalling, name-calling and deflecting. Rather than launch a public inquiry into the whole affair, as the opposition and much informed opinion had been demanding, the Prime Minister at length appointed David Johnston, whose conflicts are by now well-known, to advise him on how to proceed, particularly in the matter of whether to hold a public inquiry. The public, he complained, wouldn’t trust any decision he made. (“I know that no matter what I say, Canadians continue to have questions …”) They would trust Mr. Johnston.

So now we are in a democratic crisis. The opposition might have put up with the Johnston appointment had he done the expected and recommended a public inquiry. But when his report came in, based entirely on his own private inquiries, exonerating the government of all suspicion and rejecting a public inquiry as both unnecessary and dangerous – he would hold public hearings, he said, but not into what the government knew or did – the opposition had had enough. This week it voted again to demand a public inquiry, and to urge Mr. Johnston to step down.

Which should have been the end of it. Justin Trudeau was wrong to have appointed Mr. Johnston, and Mr. Johnston was wrong to have accepted it. His report had been a debacle. Now he could leave with some dignity: “I am the people’s servant. If I have lost the confidence of the people’s representatives, I am duty-bound to resign.”

For the Prime Minister, it should have been an opportunity for a reset. The purpose of appointing an “independent special rapporteur” was supposed to be to inspire bipartisan confidence that the matter – involving, remember, a foreign power’s attempts to interfere in our elections – would receive a full and impartial investigation, wherever it might lead. That confidence having been shattered, Mr. Johnston would have to go. There was now no alternative but to call a public inquiry.

Instead, incredibly, both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Johnston doubled down. Mr. Trudeau accused the opposition of playing politics with the issue. Mr. Johnston issued a statement saying that, while he respected Parliament’s right to “express its opinion” of his work, he owed his appointment to Mr. Trudeau. Which was more or less Parliament’s point.

I say, incredibly, because it is literally hard to believe: As the columnist Lorrie Goldstein put it, faced with Parliament’s demand for a public inquiry, the Prime Minister instead hired a friend to tell him no such inquiry was needed. Parliament having voted no confidence in his “independent” rapporteur, the Prime Minister’s response is that Parliament’s confidence is unnecessary. It is enough that Mr. Johnston, the investigator, enjoys the confidence of the subject of his investigations.

(Because it is the government that is under investigation, not China. It is the government that has power; it is the government that is responsible for protecting our democracy; it is the government that is accused of failing to do so; and if that were not enough, it is the government that allegedly stood to benefit from this failure.)

What makes this defiance especially remarkable are the events surrounding it. A parliamentary committee heard testimony this week from national security experts that Mr. Johnston’s main argument against a public inquiry – that it could not be held in public, even in part, for fear that sensitive intelligence would be revealed – was without foundation: There had been several such inquiries over the years, from the McDonald commission on the RCMP to the Maher Arar inquiry, without any state secrets having been disclosed.

Then there was Tuesday’s extraordinary statement in the House by Erin O’Toole, the former leader of the Conservatives, after being briefed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service officials on Chinese disinformation efforts against him and members of his party. It was, they had told him, an “orchestrated campaign” of defamation, directed by agents of the Chinese government. Of that they were in no doubt.

Contrast this with Mr. Johnston’s findings that such disinformation “could not be traced to a state-sponsored source,” or that it was equally unclear whether this was part of a deliberate campaign or had merely appeared “organically.”

It is hard to know what to make of this. Mr. O’Toole’s source was not some anonymously leaked intelligence memo, a mere “brushstroke,” as Mr. Johnston complained in his report, from a much larger painting. It was an official briefing, representing CSIS’s latest and fullest assessment of events. And it wholly contradicts the version presented in Mr. Johnston’s report.

Moreover it confirms, rather than confounds, those fragmentary dispatches he devotes so much space to debunking. Indeed, it is unlikely that Mr. O’Toole would even have been told he was a target of Chinese intelligence had the story not been leaked to the press – the same leaks to which Mr. Johnston refers so venomously in his report (“malice cannot be ruled out”).

If the Conservatives, then, have even less reason to accept Mr. Johnston’s report now than they did at the start of the week, it is an opinion that would seem to be shared by the Liberals – at least, measured by what they do rather than what they say. Though the Prime Minister stood by his rapporteur in public statements, what was equally noteworthy was what he did not do: restore Han Dong to caucus.

The Don Valley North MP had been sitting as an independent since Global News reported, based on intelligence leaks, that he had urged China, in meetings with officials from the Chinese consulate in Toronto, to delay releasing two Canadian businessmen (popularly known as the Two Michaels). Global News had also reported that Mr. Dong was a witting participant in Chinese interference activities, including efforts to secure the Liberal nomination in Don Valley North for him. (Mr. Dong denies both allegations and is suing the network for its reports.)

Mr. Johnston had flatly exonerated Mr. Dong on the first charge (“the allegation is false”) and had cast doubt on the second (the Prime Minister’s decision to keep Mr. Dong on as a candidate “was not an unreasonable conclusion based on the intelligence available to the Prime Minister at the time”). Claiming vindication, Mr. Dong immediately and publicly expressed his desire to rejoin the Liberal caucus. And yet the Prime Minister seems in no hurry. Despite claiming it was Mr. Dong’s choice whether to return, he has appointed his lieutenant, Dominic LeBlanc, to look into the matter further.

Mr. Dong had, after all, been meeting with Chinese officials, at a time of maximum diplomatic delicacy, without telling the government; he had what is more, by his own admission, been discussing the Two Michaels with them, even if he did not make the specific suggestion alleged. And whether he knew about it or not, it is not disputed that China intervened in his nomination race on his behalf.

All of which is to say: This story has just begun to be told. Far from resolving all doubts, Mr. Johnston’s report has succeeded only in raising new ones. It is clear now, if it was not before, that the task of investigating this matter cannot be entrusted to him. Neither can it be left to the government to investigate itself: There must be an independent public inquiry.

That’s not just my opinion. Parliament has made its views on both questions abundantly clear, in formal votes of the House. And yet here we are, with the Prime Minister openly defying the will of Parliament, on a matter of the utmost gravity.

This cannot be allowed to continue. This has gone well beyond China, or disinformation or intelligence leaks. It is not just about the integrity of our elections, or the right of MPs to take a stand without fear of retaliation from foreign powers. This is about parliamentary government, and whether the government is answerable to the people we elect.

If the Prime Minister persists in defying Parliament, in the service of obstructing legitimate inquiry into his government’s handling of China’s attempts to bully and manipulate our democracy, then Parliament cannot just withdraw its confidence in his surrogates. It must withdraw its confidence in him.

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