Parliament has already spoken on the need for an independent public inquiry into China’s meddling in Canada’s electoral system. Opposition parties united to vote in favour of an inquiry, with the (non-binding) motion passing 172-149. The will of Parliament is clear – and it is equally clear that former governor-general David Johnston’s report on foreign interference defies that will.
To have any legitimacy, such defiance would have to lay out indisputable proof that the federal government responded prudently and quickly to China’s provocations. Instead, Mr. Johnston insists that any evidence is classified, and Canadians must simply take his word for it.
Mr. Johnston’s mission was clear: to restore the corroded public trust in Canada’s institutions of government by laying out a clear path for Canadians to understand how China had meddled with our electoral system – and what the federal Liberal government had done about it.
However honorable his intentions, Mr. Johnston has not only failed in that mission but has also further damaged public confidence in our institutions. The office of the governor-general is politically tinged, now that Mr. Johnston has been thrust (by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) into the midst of the firestorm over foreign interference.
The King’s representative in Canada must remain above partisan politics; that maxim should apply not just to the current resident of Rideau Hall but to past office holders, as well. Mr. Johnston may well believe he has fulfilled that duty, but the fact remains that he is publicly defending the government’s actions and opening himself up to criticism.
To make matters worse, Mr. Johnston has now entangled the Supreme Court, by asking former justice Frank Iacobucci for an opinion as to whether he was in a conflict of interest. Former justices, like former governors-general, should avoid entering the political arena and thereby linking their non-partisan institution to a partisan debate.
A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada
All of that would be true no matter what Mr. Johnston had recommended. But it is made all the more troubling by a report that baldly asserts there was no failure of duty by the federal government in dealing with China’s meddling. In essence, he would like Canadians to return to a state of collective ignorance, before leaks exposed Ottawa’s inaction.
He criticizes the whistle-blowers, yet Mr. Trudeau and his ministers say they only became aware of China’s targeting of Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong following reports from The Globe and Mail.
But for the leaks, Mr. Johnston would have remained unaware of this critical failure. Indeed, there would be no special rapporteur process, and no way to address the systemic flaws that Mr. Johnston has identified. Nor would Ottawa have expelled the Chinese diplomat who was part of the effort to intimidate Mr. Chong.
Mr. Johnston says he is satisfied that Mr. Trudeau, other ministers or their offices did not knowingly ignore intelligence and were not driven by partisan considerations.
But his inquiries are inadequate. Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who led the party when China meddled in the 2021 election, wrote on Monday that he took part in an 11th-hour meeting with Mr. Johnston – who had already sent part of his report off to be translated. Mr. Johnston insisted his mind remained opened, but it is astonishing that Mr. O’Toole was not the first person he met with.
Mr. Johnston also claims there is an inherent conflict between a full public inquiry and the secrecy surrounding classified information that makes such an inquiry impossible. But that ignores history, not to mention common sense.
Many past public inquiries have held in-camera sessions, out of public sight, on contentious matters, including on a national-security sex scandal in the 1960s. Just last year, the Public Order Emergency Commission dealt with sensitive national security information through closed sessions.
More broadly, Mr. Johnston is wrong to assume that all currently classified information must remain classified. A full public inquiry, headed by a former judge, would be a powerful advocate for declassifying as much of that information as possible, without exposing sources or intelligence methods. It would also be able to secure sworn testimony.
What the Liberals knew, when they knew it and what they did about it remain unanswered questions. This government is determined to defy Parliament and avoid such scrutiny. It may fall to a future government to take that essential step.