When David Johnston released his first report on foreign interference three weeks ago, the former governor general argued that Parliament was — or should be — capable of handling such an important matter itself.
Parliament — as represented by a majority of MPs in the House of Commons — vehemently disagreed.
As special rapporteur, Johnston proposed that opposition leaders be allowed to review the intelligence that he was given access to and that his report be sent to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), two bodies established by Parliament in 2017 and 2019 respectively, for further review.
Conservative MP Michael Chong referred to this as a “mountain of process” in question period on Monday. But Johnston’s critics seemed less concerned by what Johnston found or recommended than they were by questions about his credibility.
In the immediate aftermath of his resignation late last week, Liberals and Conservatives blamed each other for Johnston’s defeat. For once, they were both right.
The Conservatives attacked Johnston with glee and certainly went beyond a strict reading of the facts when describing his associations with the prime minister. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his advisers apparently failed to imagine the sort of attacks Johnston might face. And this is not the first time the government has, at the very least, failed to fully appreciate how others might perceive its actions.
Johnston didn’t help matters when he chose the crisis communications firm Navigator to advise him at public expense, or when he accepted the free counsel of former Liberal and NDP strategists. (Maybe it’s not surprising that someone subjected to relentless political and media criticism might seek out communications advice.)
Ultimately, however, Johnston was undone not because he proposed a “mountain of process” but because the opposition wanted a different mountain of process.
Johnston may have been doomed to fail
From the outset, the opposition parties were united in demanding an independent public inquiry of the sort that is usually led by a former judge. But Johnston was not enlisted to lead a public inquiry — and then he specifically recommended against calling one.
Had he called for an inquiry last month, he could have headed back into retirement with support from all parties. But Johnston’s criticisms of the inquiry idea were not unreasonable.
“By their nature, they are expensive and lengthy, often extending for years,” Johnston wrote in his first report. “Counsel to the commission call witnesses, who are subject to cross-examination by other parties. The process is dominated by lawyers, and tends to become quasi-adversarial. When governments appoint public inquiries it is because they believe that the need for public transparency outweighs the inefficiencies caused by this process.”
Johnston also argued that much of the evidence in this case — the classified intelligence — would have to be viewed and discussed in secret, undercutting somewhat the notion of a “public” inquiry.
In truth, the furor over foreign interference likely was too far gone by the time Johnston offered those thoughts last month. There was probably never any chance of Johnston’s arguments being heard or considered, given the opprobrium that surrounded him.
Ironically, a poll released just days before Johnston resigned suggested the public still found him more credible than any of the major party leaders.
An inquiry is back on the table
In his absence, the government now seems inclined to at least consider what an inquiry might look like. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc now goes so far as to insist that the possibility of an inquiry was never actually taken “off the table.” That stretches the metaphorical table beyond comprehension, but LeBlanc is promising to consult experts and opposition parties on the path forward.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is also offering to work with the other opposition parties to ensure someone suitable is found to lead an inquiry.
The treatment Johnston received probably has reduced the number of people willing to accept such an assignment. But it might be even harder to get all-party agreement on the other details: an inquiry’s terms of reference and timeline.
A full commission on foreign interference could cover a half-dozen issues: the efforts made by various countries to covertly influence Canadian politics; the flow of information and the government’s handling of intelligence; the experiences of diaspora communities in Canada; the protocols for notifying the public and political parties about attempted foreign interference; the steps taken by law enforcement and security agencies to combat those attempts; and the new policies that are needed to better safeguard Canadian democracy.
It would be easy to imagine such an inquiry running two or three years. From start to finish, the commission of inquiry into Canada’s treatment of Maher Arar took two and a half years.
The clock is ticking
But at the most basic level, this controversy is driven by questions about what political officials in the Trudeau government knew about attempts by China to interfere in Canada’s politics and whether they did enough to respond. And the answers to those questions will be of limited value if they don’t come before the next federal election.
The timing of that election can’t be known for certain — in a minority Parliament, the government’s defeat is never more than a vote away. But ideally, an inquiry would report back before 2025, when the confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and NDP is due to expire.
The timeline might be slightly less daunting if the Trudeau government had launched an inquiry earlier. But it may yet be shown that NSICOP was perfectly capable of getting to the bottom of this affair. For all anyone knows, it might already be doing so. (It’s also entirely possible that any future inquiry will only end up confirming Johnston’s conclusions about who knew what and when.)
But the need for serious answers is all the more pressing now, however they’re sought — through Parliament or beyond it.
Johnston, for one, seemed to understand that big things were at stake. The first and last words of his report last month were the same word — “democracy.”
In his absence, the discussion might finally turn to such things.