Even as he called for national security issues to be held above politics, David Johnston threw things back at politicians.
The former governor-general was appointed special rapporteur on foreign interference in March, and spent the following two months under attack for being too close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – or, as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre termed it, being Mr. Trudeau’s “ski buddy.”
On Tuesday, when Mr. Johnston delivered a report that recommended against a public inquiry into China’s meddling in Canadian politics, he also knocked the ball back into the court of the opposition politicians who had demanded one: He called for the leaders of the three major opposition parties to get security clearances, so they could take part in a review of his findings.
If they don’t agree with his findings after that, they should say so, Mr. Johnston said. This, he argued, is the way parliamentary oversight should work.
Let’s come back later to how quickly that suggestion was rejected by Mr. Poilievre – who promised that, if elected, he will call a public inquiry – and why Canada’s political system still has an unsolved problem.
First, let’s note that Mr. Johnston also gave a lengthy and believable history of his relationship with Mr. Trudeau, in the interest of demonstrating that the two are not, in fact, besties.
He said he knew Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but that his friendship with the current PM amounts to about five occasions when his children and the Trudeau boys went skiing together. They had no other interactions until Justin Trudeau was elected as an MP, according to Mr. Johnston.
Mr. Johnston was a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, but he was not involved in its management.
He noted that he has been appointed to many roles by prime ministers and premiers of various stripes. He said the current “baseless set of accusations” that he would not be impartial diminishes public trust in institutions. As he told this to a news conference, he pursed his lips and his skin flushed with what seemed like indignation.
It really is hard to believe that Mr. Johnston would take part in a cover-up, as Mr. Poilievre alleged. Still, like it or not, there is the matter of perception. Ordinary Canadians who haven’t taken a prime minister’s kids skiing might wonder if the gentlemanly Mr. Johnston might be inclined to be gentle with the PM. Or the whole system.
There is reason to think the courtly former university president interviewing officials might not be as zealous as an inquiry commissioner demanding answers from sworn witnesses. In 2008, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper asked Mr. Johnston to set the terms of an inquiry into some of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s business dealings, he excluded controversial questions about alleged kickbacks from the sale of Airbus jets to Air Canada.
Yet the foreign interference report Mr. Johnston released Tuesday did review facts and draw important conclusions.
He took issue with reporting in several Global News stories. Notably, he declared false a report that MP Han Dong had asked Chinese consulate officials to continue the detention of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. He did not contest much of The Globe and Mail’s reporting. But he did find that a Globe story that said a Chinese consul-general in Vancouver had indicated that Beijing wanted the Liberals to win a minority government in 2021 actually reflected the view of a small number of Chinese diplomats.
He found no evidence that Liberal politicians deliberately ignored Chinese interference. But he did find plenty of problems with the way intelligence about that interference is handled. The Public Safety Minister didn’t read e-mails about China targeting the relatives of Conservative MP Michael Chong, because the messages were on a top-secret system to which the minister doesn’t have access. Mr. Johnston did not determine who actually did read those reports.
This is useful. But it’s not everything. It doesn’t cover all the issues related to Chinese interference. And it is still being questioned.
Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien was still alleging on Tuesday that Mr. Johnston had done a job for Mr. Trudeau. The opposition wanted an inquiry headed by someone more inclined to be disruptive, named by them.
Mr. Johnston’s attempt to throw the ball back in their court by urging party leaders to take part in a closed-door review of his work – backed by Mr. Trudeau – isn’t going to end that.
Mr. Poilievre rejected this idea out of hand. He said he won’t be silenced, meaning he won’t take a secrecy oath to hear the intelligence. That way he can keep making allegations.
One can still imagine opposition MPs who do take those oaths telling the public that Mr. Johnston’s work had shortcomings – that he didn’t ask the right questions, or get to the bottom of things, but that they can’t say why. And then Canadians will again be looking for an arbiter that no one can question.