A government holds power in a democracy only on loan from the public. The onus is therefore always on the government to show that it is worthy of the public’s trust. It is the price of power.
A government is not entitled to the presumption of innocence. If a breach should open in the public’s trust in government, the onus is on the government to repair it. It is not on the public to trust it.
For example, the government is widely suspected, on the basis of a series of damning intelligence memos leaked to the media, of having ignored China’s repeated attempts to interfere with Canada’s elections – a plot that was allegedly intended to benefit the Liberal Party and may even have involved one or more of its members. It is hard to imagine a more serious threat to public trust.
How would a government that was genuinely committed to restoring public trust respond to this? It would not only take immediate action to ensure this sort of thing never happened again. It would also go out of its way to allay any concerns about how it happened in the first place.
At a minimum, the prime minister would make himself available to answer any questions the public might have about the matter: what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it. Lest this be viewed as insufficient, he would also call a public inquiry, with all of the powers to compel evidence at its disposal.
And to lead the inquiry, he would not just choose someone without the slightest whiff of association with himself, his party, the government, or China. In a matter as grave as a foreign power’s attempt to tilt an election – regardless of whether the attempt succeeded – he would take care to ensure whoever oversaw the investigation was also explicitly acceptable to his opponents.
What, instead, have we seen? We have seen Justin Trudeau engage in a lengthy game of catch me if you can: answering no questions, throwing up one deflection after another, in all attempting to shift the onus off of himself and his government and onto the leakers, the press, the opposition, and ultimately the public. And in this he has had the able assistance of his hand-picked “independent special rapporteur,” David Johnston – appointed, not only without consulting the opposition, but over its objections.
Whether it was necessary to appoint anyone to this invented position may be debated. But having elected to do so, it is remarkable that he should have chosen, of all people, an old friend, a (former) member of the Trudeau Foundation, whose own foundation received millions of dollars in funding from the Trudeau government, and who has a long history of promoting closer ties with China.
This in itself has required some considerable effort at onus-shifting. You can see it in the frequent displays of Liberal outrage that anyone could “question the integrity” of the former governor general, as if that were the issue – as if the conflict-of-interest rules contained an exemption for people of unquestioned integrity.
Mr. Johnston appears to suffer from the same confusion. Releasing his report, he spent an embarrassing amount of time splitting hairs over just how close a friend he was of the Prime Minister. Never mind both men’s warm public declarations of friendship on previous occasions. A public officeholder is not entitled, where conflict of interest concerns are raised, to seek refuge in grey areas. The onus is on him, rather, to stay well away from anything resembling a grey area – to conduct himself, as the federal conflict-of-interest code puts it, “in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny.”
But that was just the warmup: the broader effort at onus-shifting is in his report. Having conducted his own private inquiry in place of a proper public inquiry, and having found the government blameless, Mr. Johnston throws down the gauntlet to the opposition: disprove my findings if you can. Only you must first agree never to disclose any of the intelligence on which they were based.
Much attention has since focused on the opposition leaders who have refused to be so bound. Aren’t they shirking their responsibility? Shouldn’t they step up? This is stupendously beside the point. Where public trust in something as fundamental as the integrity of our elections has been shaken, the onus is not on the opposition to make the case either way. The onus is on the government.
The only reason the opposition leaders are in the position of having to decide whether to play Mr. Johnston’s game is because of his decision to reject a public inquiry. The onus remains on him to justify that extraordinary decision – and on Mr. Trudeau, for having appointed him.