David Johnston is the right man at the wrong time

You almost have to feel sorry for David Johnston. After a lifetime of public service and esteemed achievements, including long stints at the helm of key post-secondary institutions and a term as Governor General, he is now being dragged through the dirtiest partisan mire for his role as Canada’s “special rapporteur” on affairs foreign. interference in our democracy. Nobody said public service was supposed to be easy, but it definitely shouldn’t be that hard.

His first report identifies some very real weaknesses in the way security intelligence is (or is not) communicated within the federal government. It puts to the test some of the accusations that have been made about foreign interference in our elections, including that of former Liberal MP Han Dong. And he ultimately concludes that a public inquiry, which had been the path Johnston says he thought he would recommend taking, would only frustrate those seeking more transparency.

“A ‘public inquiry’ would necessarily be done in private and would largely replicate the process I have undergone,” Johnston wrote. If the most sensitive information were made public, after all, “foreign adversaries would readily discern the sources and methods of this information. It could endanger people. It cannot be made public in its current form or usefully added to a level that could be made public,” he continued.

For his part, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Pierre Poilievre, was predictably petulant. He scheduled a press conference before the report was released to discuss Justin Trudeau’s “cover-up of Beijing interference” and referred to Johnston as the prime minister’s “ski buddy.”

Worse, perhaps, is his continued refusal (along with Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet) to learn more about what Johnston found, some of which is contained in a cache of classified documents. That’s because he would expose them to top-secret intelligence, the contents of which they could not share with the Canadians due to obvious national security concerns. “As for any proposals I may have to silence me,” Poilievre saying“The answer is no, I will not be silenced.”

If only.

The expert class, with a few notable exceptions, took a similar tone. In The Line, which has published at least four criticisms of Johnston’s first report, conservative commentator Mitch Heimpel described Johnston as “a fervent defender of his favored status quo” and “another among the group of fully committed politicians, senior officials and academics who, for decades when it comes to China foreign policy, have taken the money and they left”.

A big part of the disconnect here is because Johnston is giving a serious answer at a fundamentally unserious time. When the leader of the official opposition communicates primarily through memes, insults, and YouTube videos, getting him to sit down and have a serious discussion about Canada’s strategic security interests is about as likely as getting his cat to come forward. of taxes.

Their work also assumes a spirit of mutual concern and common decency, both on the part of our elected officials and the people tasked with covering them, that simply isn’t there anymore. To be fair, maybe it hasn’t been around for a while. But it was much more common in the world Johnston hails from than the one he finds himself in now.

David Johnston delivered a serious and sober report on foreign interference in Canada’s democracy, one that almost immediately fell on deaf ears. Now the government is in an even deeper hole, one that it keeps digging itself.

Finally, it betrays a bit of naivety on Johnston’s part. As he wrote in his report, “This matter is too important for anyone who aspires to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance about these matters. While political parties may disagree on policy and priorities, they should do so based on a common understanding of the actual facts, not as speculated or hypothesized from media reports based on partial information leaks. ”.

But that assumes that there are no people in politics who are willing to trade ignorance for partisan advantage, or who put the common good of the country above their ability to determine it. Johnston has been around the block enough times to know that’s not the case, but he still seems to be operating on the assumption that it is.

To be clear, this is not your fault. The blame here falls mainly on the prime minister and his staff, who had to know that Poilievre and his team would draw attention to Johnston’s ties to the Trudeau Foundation and the Trudeau family. It reveals one of two things, neither of which is good: either a crippling blindness to the optics of its appointment or a deep cynicism about its broader usefulness, and a willingness to throw a decorated public servant to the digital wolves to get it done.

Johnston tried to address this in his report, detailing his limited interactions with the prime minister and the Trudeau Foundation over the years. He even did a stress test on Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court Justice of Canada who was appointed to the position by Brian Mulroney. “I have no doubt that I had any conflict of interest and I have no doubt, speaking for myself, about my impartiality,” Johnston said.

I also have no doubts about his lack of doubts. But we now live in a world where the official opposition seems intent on casting doubt on our democratic institutions, from the courts to the results of our elections. Case in point: Poilievre simply fired Iacobucci as “someone who is part of the Trudeau Foundation” (note the tense confusion here) because he was a mentor to the organization in 2006.

Here are some lessons, in case someone in Ottawa wants to learn them. First, the days of respecting the work of career public servants are long gone. As in Donald Trump’s America, those who dedicate their lives to public service are more likely to attract resentment, unless, of course, they are running for public office as a conservative. As Johnston said of the criticism of his connections to the Trudeau family, “These kinds of unsubstantiated allegations undermine trust in our public institutions.”

Of course, that’s a feature rather than a bug for many of the people launching the accusations. Those of us who care about public institutions, including, I suppose, the current Liberal government, need to be more careful about how we manage their finite supply of public trust. Spending it to win the day, an issue, or even an election may seem attractive in the short term. However, in the long run, it leaves us all bankrupt.

Finally, for all the talk about conservatives or liberals winning and losing, we must understand that countries like China and Russia are playing a different and longer game here. For Canadians to tear each other apart and damage our public institutions in the process is exactly what they want. It is certainly more valuable to them than a few seats in an election that they might try to influence.

If there is a way out of this mess, it will be through the public hearings that Johnston suggested, and which the Trudeau government subsequently endorsed. As the toronto starby Susan Delacourt wrote, “Hearings are ultimately an opportunity to put Johnston’s work where it belongs: in the realm of the public trust, before the public, out in the open. What is at stake here is public trust in democracy, not whether political parties can get along or even if there is a communication breakdown between the government and the national security system.”

She is correct. Johnston’s report may have rebuffed some of the more salacious accusations of foreign interference leaked by security personnel, but he risks losing the forest for the trees. What is at stake now is the perception of injustice, which is being amplified by conservative politicians and pundits. In an era where trust in institutions and democracy is being actively and deliberately eroded, we must clear the air before more lasting damage is done. And David Johnston, despite all his many qualifications and accomplishments, was never going to be the person to do that.


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