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HomeWorld NewsCanada newsDavid Johnston's position is barely tenable. Can his investigation be salvaged?

David Johnston’s position is barely tenable. Can his investigation be salvaged?

As always, multiple things can be true at the same time.

David Johnston can be both a flawed choice to investigate the government’s response to intelligence on foreign interference — and the target of unfair treatment since taking on that task. The prime minister could have been better off asking someone else to be special rapporteur — and Johnston’s reception from his critics may have diminished the number of people willing and able to do the job.

Now that most members of the House of Commons have called on Johnston to resign, his position is barely tenable. But he is apparently determined to finish the job. And the process he initiated may still be salvageable.

In Johnston’s telling, the extent of his relationship with Trudeau — what Johnston himself has referred to as their “so-called friendship” — has been overstated. According to Johnston, he knew Pierre Trudeau and the former prime minister’s sons went skiing with Johnston’s family when Johnston had a condominium near Mont Tremblant in Quebec [Johnston says the elder Trudeau had a home 50 km away]. On one occasion, Johnston said, he drove the Trudeau boys to their mother’s house, 10 km away from Johnston’s condo.

According to Johnston, he and Justin Trudeau occasionally crossed paths when Johnston was the principal of McGill University and Trudeau was a student there (Trudeau graduated in 1994). They had no further interactions, he said, until Trudeau was an MP (he was elected in 2008) and Johnston was appointed governor general (Johnston assumed that office in 2010).

Johnston was still governor general when Trudeau became prime minister. The Trudeau family lives at Rideau Cottage, which is located on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the governor general’s residence.

Based on those facts, it’s at least a stretch to describe Johnston as Trudeau’s “ski buddy,” “neighbour” or “personal friend,” as the Conservative Party has taken to labelling him.

WATCH | Pierre Poilievre questions David Johnston’s decision not to recommend a public inquiry:

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre tells reporters in Quebec City he ‘would not be silenced’ after David Johnston announced he would not recommend holding a public inquiry on foreign interference and called on opposition leaders to join NSICOP.

But given those facts — and the fact that Johnston was involved with the Trudeau Foundation after his time as governor general came to an end — Trudeau surely would have been better off finding someone else to act as the prime minister’s special rapporteur on foreign interference. At the very least, Trudeau and his advisers should have anticipated the attacks Johnston faces now.

Johnston’s desire to say yes whenever a prime minister asks for help is admirable. But in this case, it seems like the prime minister asked him to jump into a tank of piranhas.

There is surely much to be said for Johnston. And if it was a mistake for Trudeau to tap him for this job, presumably it was also a mistake for Stephen Harper to ask Johnston to advise him on an inquiry into Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber (the Mulroney government appointed Johnston as chair of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy in 1988) and to extend Johnston’s term as governor general in 2015 (putting Johnston in a position where he had to preside over an election that prominently featured Trudeau).

But if Trudeau needed to find someone whose background was beyond question. Johnston was not that someone.

Mind you, the past few weeks might also lead one to wonder how many perfectly unimpeachable people there are in Canada.

If not Johnston, who?

While the headline item in the NDP’s motion this week was the call for Johnston to resign, the most interesting part of that motion was an instruction to a House of Commons committee to recommend an individual who could lead a public inquiry into foreign interference. The motion says the individual should have the “unanimous support” of all recognized parties.

It would be interesting to see whether the parties — or even just the opposition parties — are capable of finding someone on whom they can agree.

WATCH | Opposition MPs say David Johnston must step aside:

david johnstons position is barely tenable can his investigation be salvaged 1

Opposition MPs say David Johnson must go

2 days ago

Duration 1:36:58

May 31, 2023 – Opposition MPs say David Johnston should be removed as special rapporteur. What happens if the prime minister ignores that call? Power and Politics asks NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Plus, crews in Nova Scotia are battling three out-of-control fires, one just outside Halifax. Power and Politics speaks to Premier Tim Houston about his call for federal help.

Though the phrase “conflict of interest” has been thrown around a lot, it’s not obvious that Johnston’s actually in one in this case. It also would be hard to prove — at least so far — that Johnston demonstrated any kind of bias in his investigation or recommendations.

Proof of bias is generally said to be beside the point. Even the perception of bias or conflict is supposed to be avoided. That makes some sense. But it also bestows significant power upon those doing the perceiving — in this case, opposition MPs and pundits.

It can be safely assumed that no one who has had any involvement with the Trudeau Foundation is eligible (that rules out two former Conservative cabinet ministers and several former Supreme Court justices). The individual obviously can’t have had many interactions with the prime minister or any member of his family.

Any connection to China has the potential to arouse suspicions (Conservative MP Luc Berthold noted this week that three of Johnston’s daughters attended university in China). A record of political donations is probably also disqualifying (concerns have been raised about the fact that one of the lawyers who advised Johnston has donated to the Liberal Party).

Is any amount of previous political involvement permissible? What about publicly stated political views? Or a previous government appointment?

What everyone is overlooking 

An open debate among MPs about who could do the job would at least clarify whether there are more than a couple of people in this country who could run the partisan gauntlet and emerge unscathed.

Ultimately, it may turn out that no special rapporteur was ever going to be acceptable — because whoever it was would be standing in the way of demands for a public inquiry.

The great irony is that the furor over Johnston’s personal credibility has largely obscured what might otherwise have been considered a significant report on China’s attempts to interfere in Canadian democracy and the poor handling of intelligence within government. If not for the fact that Johnston’s report was preceded by such sensational allegations and partisan accusations of a political cover-up — and the fact that Johnston felt some claims needed to be debunked — his findings might have been considered highly alarming.

At this point, there are surely people who won’t accept whatever comes out of the current process. That group is now bigger than it needed to be.

If there remains a narrow path to something that might limit the ranks of the suspicious and cynical, it involves Johnston doing meaningful work with the public hearings he has promised and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians doing a credible job of following up on Johnston’s work.

A defensible conclusion to this process might also make it more likely that the next person asked by a prime minister to do a job will say ‘yes.’

But if there is still a path to real accountability and a productive discussion, it’s also fair to say that, seven months into this political firestorm, the only winner seems to be China — which has at least succeeded in sowing discord and doubt.

AT ISSUE | Should David Johnston step down as special rapporteur? 

david johnstons position is barely tenable can his investigation be salvaged 2

Should David Johnston step down as special rapporteur?

12 hours ago

Duration 17:27

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has passed a motion calling for David Johnston to leave his role probing foreign interference allegations, but Johnston says he’s not done as special rapporteur. Plus, what does the boost in RCMP protection for senior government ministers and public servants say about our political climate?

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