The strong opposition to David Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur investigating Chinese interference in elections reveals how our times, and our politics, have changed.
In a previous column, I suggested that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre should accept Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice of Mr. Johnston on the grounds that the former governor-general was appointed to that post by then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and that he is one of this country’s most trusted, and trustworthy, figures.
Instead, Mr. Poilievre assailed the choice on the grounds that Mr. Johnston was a friend of the Trudeau family and a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity.
“Justin Trudeau has named a ‘family friend,’ old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the ‘independent’ rapporteur on Beijing’s interference,” he tweeted. “Get real. Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry.”
Other Conservative MPs, including former leader Andrew Scheer and Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman, also tweeted their objection. And many commentators, including my colleague Andrew Coyne and The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, cited Mr. Johnston’s friendship with the Trudeau family in criticizing the choice.
I believe that Mr. Johnston’s decades of service to this country, his unimpeachable integrity and his sound judgment more than compensate for any objections. This is an issue on which people of goodwill can simply disagree.
But other factors are also at work.
Much has been made of the toxicity of social media. But the decline of deference was under way long before that. In the main, it’s good that people are less willing than in the past to defer to authority, that they demand accountability from political and other leaders.
But an engrained cynicism has become an unwelcome byproduct of that process. The headline on John Ivison’s column in the National Post said it best: “David Johnston is a man of trust in a post-trust world.”
In this post-trust world, a new generation of conservatives is taking the stage. Many of them are fearsomely smart. Some of them are politically ruthless. All of them are contemptuous of the Laurentian political, academic and cultural elites who have traditionally run this country. Of course they would reject Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. He is as Laurentian as they come.
In Pierre Poilievre, they have found someone who speaks their language and shares their polarizing worldview. Mr. Poilievre was never a senior figure in Mr. Harper’s governments, arriving in cabinet late and spending most of that time in a minor portfolio. Mr. Harper distrusted the populist wing of the conservative base. It is why he left the Reform Party in the 1990s and why he kept most of the more populist MPs on the back bench. Mr. Poilievre courts populists with enthusiasm.
He must know that Mr. Harper likes and admires Mr. Johnston. But rather than respectfully expressing reservation about the appointment, the Conservative Leader tweets in derision. This isn’t Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party any more.
That said, Mr. Trudeau bears most of the blame for the hostility that greeted the announcement of Mr. Johnston as rapporteur. After more than seven years in office, polls show that most voters disapprove of his performance, and with good reason.
He dismissed the initial reports from The Globe and Global News of Chinese interference in federal elections. He blamed the whistle-blowers. He accused his critics of racism. MPs on a committee investigating the allegations filibustered. Finally, with the crisis escalating and all sides calling for a public inquiry, he promised to appoint a rapporteur to make recommendations on next steps.
The next step should have been to convene that public inquiry. There is a growing body of evidence that the Chinese government has attempted to manipulate elections in Canada, including the mayor’s race in Vancouver and the federal elections of 2019 and 2021. This interference, along with what the Prime Minister knew about it and what he did about it, must be thoroughly investigated.
In appointing a rapporteur to examine the files and make recommendations, Mr. Trudeau is delaying the inevitable. It’s a damn shame that the reputation of someone as honourable as David Johnston should be brought into question through the Prime Minister’s efforts to avoid responsibility.