There was to be no stepping aside for David Johnston. He has a grim, unswerving determination to stay on in a job that the House of Commons has asked him to leave, insisting he has a duty to fulfill.
He is quite right, too, to say he was given his mandate as special rapporteur on foreign interference by the government, not Parliament. There lies the problem that isn’t going away.
Mr. Johnston’s role was always in question because he was the government’s adviser. That was so even without the relentless opposition needles that he was the Prime Minister’s man – too close to the Trudeau family to be impartial with Justin Trudeau.
Now it is even more the case after the House of Commons voted on Wednesday to call for Mr. Johnston to step aside. He is the government’s man, Mr. Trudeau’s adviser, and he does his job not on behalf of, but in opposition to, the elected representatives of the people.
“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes from the government,” Mr. Johnston said in a statement issued soon after the Commons vote. “I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.”
You didn’t have to listen all the way through Mr. Johnston’s news conference last week to guess he might do this – insist he will stay, out of a stony sense of noblesse oblige.
When asked if he was the best person for the job, despite critics who suggested there was an appearance of conflict, he remarked on limited interactions with Mr. Trudeau and added, indignantly, that in his long life of public service, his integrity hasn’t been questioned before. He was digging in, come what may, to carry out his mandate.
It is Mr. Trudeau who should have relieved him of it. But the PM has a tendency to double down when challenged. And every time he and his Liberal MPs stand to complain that Mr. Johnston’s critics are besmirching an unimpeachable Canadian, Mr. Johnston’s name takes on more water from the controversy.
And what for?
Mr. Johnston’s May 23 report on what happened inside the government during alleged incidents of Chinese interference in Canadian democracy and elections was so contested that the conclusions carried little weight.
Imagine the second phase of his work, holding public hearings on improving the government’s response to interference – as the government’s person looking at what the government should do.
When called before the rapporteur, will witnesses come believing it will shed light? What about the opposition politicians, including targets of Beijing’s interference, whose parties have formally voted for Mr. Johnston to step aside?
Surely no one stepping back from the yay-boo in Ottawa can find a solid reason why the question of Chinese foreign interference must revolve around Mr. Johnston. At 81, he has a long record as an honourable public servant and Canada’s former governor-general, but he is not an indispensable figure in this matter.
There’s no reason to chain him to the special rapporteur’s desk.
Instead, the clash between Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government and the majority in Parliament has cited Mr. Johnston by name.
It seems Mr. Johnston has decided to grit his teeth and get through it, seeing that as the public servant’s obligation. Mr. Trudeau, for other reasons, is apparently set on doing the same thing.
Perhaps the Liberals reason that foreign interference isn’t a bread-and-butter issue that has ordinary Canadians riled, and that the controversy will fade over the summer. An inquiry is trouble for a government, not just because of where it might go, but all the time and effort it takes from high-level figures.
But alternatively, new reports could make the issue heat up over and over again, and all the PM will have to point to will be a few public hearings convened by someone whom MPs had asked to step aside.
If the purpose of Mr. Johnston’s job is to provide a reasonably authoritative, widely accepted answer to Canadians about foreign interference in this country’s democracy and the government’s response to it, then the problem is obviously that, no matter how good a job he does, Mr. Johnston can’t fulfill the purpose. But he will stick to that grim duty.