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Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration and associate professor at Dalhousie University.

The decision as to whether to hold a public inquiry on any topic, including the very important issue of foreign interference in Canada’s democracy, belongs to the prime minister. It cannot be transferred to an unelected, unaccountable appointee, regardless of that person’s credentials or experience. The ongoing noise about The Right Honourable David Johnston’s appointment to this position is an unfortunate distraction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s making.

Here’s what should have happened: Mr. Trudeau ought to have decided, either on his own or in consultation with opposition party leaders, to hold a public inquiry into foreign interference. The threat is real and we are ill-equipped as a democracy to fortify ourselves against it.

An independent public inquiry given the time and resources to analyze and report on this issue is not only reasonable but necessary. Canada’s foot-dragging on this issue, compared with our allies, is embarrassing. Given Mr. Trudeau’s recent trips abroad, during which he extolled the values of Canadian democracy and hoisted us up as an example to be followed, it is surprising that he does not accept the opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue about threats to democracy both at home and around the world.

The public inquiry ought to be run by a truly independent person with expertise on the issues of national security and intelligence. Mr. Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur shows deeply flawed judgment, both on the part of the Prime Minister for making it, and on the part of Mr. Johnston for taking it. As a former governor-general and a former member of the Trudeau Foundation, Mr. Johnston should have been nowhere near this thing. It is a problem that the government did not realize this – or perhaps they did and thought they could get away with it, which would be a bigger problem.

The timing of the appointment was disastrous and is a contributing factor to the ongoing drama. Rather than getting ahead of the issue, announcing a public inquiry, and appointing an appropriate person to run it, Mr. Trudeau was caught on his back foot and seemed to respond in haste by appointing Mr. Johnston as the quintessential adult in the room to sort out the growing mess. The special rapporteur role was presumably meant to provide independent, objective, and non-political advice on how to navigate the foreign interference issue, including whether to hold an inquiry. In other words, the point of creating the role in the first place was to take the politics out of the decision and give the government some distance from the foreign interference issue.

But Mr. Johnston’s real job was to make this problem go away, and therein lies the problem: the decision to hold a public inquiry is an inherently political one, for which the Prime Minister alone is accountable. He cannot depoliticize a political decision by handing it off to a non-elected person, and the fact that he has tried to do so has stalled the conversation about foreign interference. It has also tainted the reputation and legacy of a man who, four months ago, was beyond reproach.

Last week, Mr. Johnston held a press conference during which he explained he would not recommend a public inquiry. He drew this conclusion largely on account of the fact that the top-secret information to which he was exposed could not be shared publicly, so a public inquiry would not help matters.

That might be true. However, this advice makes more sense in a legal realm than in a political one. Even if he’s right, the government is left with a political problem that gets worse by the day. The foreign interference issue offers a narrative through which the Conservatives can accuse the government of being either corrupt or incompetent – or perhaps both. They will push this line of argument no matter what, so ducking an inquiry will do the government no favours.

Meanwhile, the country is once again faced with a conversation about whether some powerful member of the elite (in this case, Mr. Johnston) is “friends” with Mr. Trudeau, and whether that affects the Prime Minister’s judgment. Throw this into the mix with the 2016 Aga Khan situation and the 2020 WE Charity scandal, and the opposition has quite the storyline.

If the opposition parties work together, they can force Mr. Trudeau to either call an inquiry or face an election. This depends almost entirely on NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party announced on Monday that it plans to table a motion calling on Mr. Johnston to step aside, and for the government to conduct a full public inquiry. And rightly so – it’s a minority Parliament. The opposition parties have no excuse not to use the power they so obviously hold.

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