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David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, presents his first report in Ottawa on May 23. Johnston says a public inquiry into Chinese election meddling would not advance the goals of transparency or trust he is seeking in reviewing allegations of foreign interference.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

If you only tuned into parts of Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on foreign interference, you might have thought it wasn’t much of a debate – and that it wasn’t really about foreign interference.

The NDP had put forward a motion that called for David Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “special rapporteur” on foreign interference, to step aside to make way for a public inquiry.

At times, it seemed like the whole thing might just be about the honour of Mr. Johnston, as Liberal MPs professed their outrage – nay, their disappointment – that anyone would ever question the former governor-general’s word.

Mr. Johnston, as is well known, recommended against an inquiry into allegations that the government ignored or mishandled Chinese interference, while opposition politicians questioned his impartiality. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called him the PM’s “ski buddy.”

The Liberals apparently decided their best tack was to make the whole thing about Mr. Johnston’s virtue.

Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen started the government’s response to the motion by quoting a former New Democrat MP lauding Mr. Johnston’s public service years ago – and then charged the NDP had joined a conspiracy to malign the former governor-general’s character. Winnipeg Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux followed up by asking New Democrats if they personally believe in Mr. Johnston.

Mr. Poilievre, meanwhile, opened his speech with an over-the-top claim that Mr. Trudeau’s boneheaded remark a decade ago that he admired China’s “basic dictatorship” was evidence that the PM always wanted to bring a similar dictatorship to Canada – and so Beijing wanted to help him.

If this debate were limited to that stuff, an observer might conclude that there wasn’t much debate about foreign interference to be had. The partisans were just getting their kicks in, and each side’s supporters would applaud.

Still, that wouldn’t do much for the ordinary Canadian, who might reasonably think it is ridiculous to suggest that Mr. Trudeau has been a Manchurian candidate all along, but also that the whole issue of foreign interference does not actually boil down to whether Mr. Johnston’s integrity has been maligned.

Luckily, there were also some grown-ups in the Commons.

New Democrat Jenny Kwan, one of the MPs recently informed by CSIS that she was targeted by Beijing, had opened the debate with an impassioned plea to fellow members of Parliament to take foreign interference seriously.

“It is happening. It is impacting Canadian society. It is impacting all of us. It is damaging to our democratic system,” she said. “It is threatening to some Canadians who are very active in their fight for basic human rights and democracy.”

Ms. Kwan didn’t insult Mr. Johnston’s honour. She criticized his conclusions.

She found fault with his inadequately explained assertion that the Liberal government did not fail to act to counter foreign interference. She suggested he moved too lightly over failures in communicating intelligence about interference to the political level. She blamed Mr. Trudeau for bad process – for naming his own “rapporteur,” for ignoring questions about potential conflicts of interest and for deciding the matter has been settled with Mr. Johnston’s report.

This was where Mr. Gerretsen first stepped in to defend Mr. Johnston’s honour, though Ms. Kwan hadn’t actually maligned it.

And the very fact that the debate on foreign interference was focused on faith in the character of one man seemed like pretty solid evidence that there is, in fact, a governance problem.

It was Erin O’Toole who ultimately brought the Commons back to more important issues.

The former Conservative leader technically rose to voice his own complaint about Chinese government interference, but in practice, he was driving into the real substance of the debate on the NDP motion.

Mr. O’Toole told the Commons that he has been briefed by CSIS on Friday that he was a target of an orchestrated campaign by Beijing before and during his tenure as Conservative leader – and that he is still a subject of an “ongoing” effort by the Chinese government.

He built a lengthy case arguing that the failure of the federal government and of CSIS to inform him that he was being targeted amounted to a failure to protect Parliament.

Certainly, one can question whether his description of Beijing’s campaign against him is accurate. But Mr. O’Toole was probably right that the allegation will be followed by more leaks and stories that erode public trust.

No matter what Canadians think of Mr. Johnston, the investigation into those matters can’t be a case that’s closed.

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