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On foreign interference, Johnston asks Canadians to trust him — and Parliament

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, waits to present his first report in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, waits to present his first report in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick


A public inquiry is off the table for now — but the argument isn't over yet

Like Canada's grandfather emerging from his study intent on imposing some order on the grandkids making an unholy racket, David Johnston cleared his throat and appealed for calm and reason on Tuesday. 

Our democracy is built on trust, the nearly 82-year-old former governor general (new window) said. 

He spoke in a quiet and gravelly voice. Nearly everyone within earshot of it was found wanting.

In his report, Johnston says that while foreign states are actively bent on interfering with Canadian politics, some of the intelligence gathered by Canada's security agencies has been misconstrued in media reports, leading to unsubstantiated speculation and inaccurate connections being drawn. In a couple of instances, Johnston writes, the reporting was simply wrong.

As for the leaks themselves, Johnston says that the leaking of secret information … cannot be justified by any frustration the leaker may have with the government's response. Such leaks can be destructive and dangerous, he adds, and finding the responsible public servants is a matter of urgency.

In Johnston's estimation, the available evidence does not show that the government allowed or tolerated foreign interference — the most explosive insinuation made by the opposition. But the machinery of government needs significant improvements because the flow of intelligence information within government is haphazard and disorganized, he writes. More also needs to be done to raise the public's awareness of the threat of foreign interference.

In response to all this, Johnston writes, the nation's political actors have fallen far short of showing the seriousness required.

I fear that the way that this story unfolded has led elected officials to engage with it in an excessively partisan way, which harms the confidence Canadians have in their institutions, he says. There has been too much posturing, and ignoring facts in favour of slogans, from all parties.

WATCH | David Johnston on calls for a public inquiry:

While it would have been an easy choice, it would not be the correct one.

David Johnston has recommended against calling a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian politics.

But Johnston did not recommend that the matter be taken out of the political arena and assigned to a public inquiry presided over by a former judge or legal scholar. Quite the opposite, in fact.

An inquiry had appeared almost inevitable — at least politically. The government needed to do something to address the mounting questions about its handling of attempted foreign interference by the Chinese state. A public inquiry would be something big and definitive — therefore, the government would call an inquiry.

But Johnston's argument is that an inquiry wouldn't be able to do or say much more than he now has. It would run into the same need to take evidence in secret and keep important information in confidence. It also would not be wrapped up quickly. 

Johnston's alternative puts the onus back on Parliament and parliamentarians.

Johnston's proposed solution 

For the moment, Canadians are being asked to take Johnston's word for it. But in addition to the 55-page public report released on Tuesday, Johnston has prepared a classified annex which explains how he came to his conclusions in greater detail and with references to the relevant secret documents.

Both the public report and the annex will be sent to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (composed of MPs and senators) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (an independent expert review body). NSICOP and NSIRA are tasked with reviewing Johnston's conclusions and reporting on whether they agree with his findings.

Johnston is also recommending that the opposition leaders all be given clearance to review that secret annex. 

That's Parliament functioning as it should be, with an oversight role, Johnston said of NSICOP. That's where it belongs. Not with a retired judge and not with a professor of law for some years. That's where Parliament has to function.

WATCH | Trudeau responds to Johnston report:

Trudeau stands by foreign interference report as reporter asks if he has regrets

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to David Johnston's report on foreign interference — which does not call for a public inquiry — and says the necessary security clearances were offered to party leaders to allow them to look at secret intelligence.

Meanwhile, Johnston himself will hold a series of public hearings to investigate the larger issues raised by foreign interference and the governance issues he has raised in his report. He will report back with more recommendations this fall. 

I recognize this report's conclusions will be met with skepticism by some, especially by those who in good faith have worked to raise legitimate questions about these issues, Johnston writes.

The challenge is this: what has allowed me to determine whether there has in fact been interference cannot be disclosed publicly.

The first line of attack against Johnston's report — that he simply can't be relied upon to fearlessly and objectively scrutinize the actions of the Trudeau government — goes directly to trust. This is the central charge of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. 

Even if one does not think Johnston himself is incapable of objective judgment in this case, it would be fair to wish Prime Minister Trudeau had somehow found someone else for the task — preferably someone he had never met. And Johnston's lengthy defence of himself on Tuesday might not persuade a single Conservative MP to drop their objections.

WATCH | Poilievre questions Johnston's decision not to call a public inquiry:

Poilievre questions Johnston's decision not to hold 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 now NSICOP (which includes two Conservative MPs) has a chance to review his work. And Poilievre will have to decide whether he can really refuse to even look at the annex that will soon be available to him. 

Johnston seemed to know that the Conservative leader — who refused to meet with Johnston — might object.

While I recognize that in normal political circumstances an opposition leader may not want to be subject to the constraints of the [Secrets of Information Act], the matter is too important for anyone aspiring to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance on these matters, Johnston writes near the end of his report.

Can NSICOP meet the challenge?

The second possible line of attack against Johnston's report is the argument that an inquiry would do a better job than NSICOP of finding out who knew what and when. Or that it would at least have more credibility than that committee of parliamentarians. And given how political actors have handled this file so far — by Johnston's own account — it would be reasonable to wonder whether NSICOP is up to the challenge.

But it also would be a sad day for Canadian democracy if it was decided that parliamentarians weren't capable of confronting an issue like this — an issue as fundamental as a threat to the political system — with due care and seriousness.

Until now, NSICOP has done itself no favours with its reluctance to acknowledge its own existence — such is the apprehension with which it chooses to interpret its own oath of secrecy. And the committee was unfortunately politicized (new window) during an earlier dispute over national security. But it has produced useful and enlightening reports.

In the clamour for a public inquiry, the potential utility of NSICOP (new window) has gone almost completely ignored. But the committee now has a chance to prove itself. And the government has no option but to fully and completely cooperate.

Our responsibility is to make this experiment in inclusivity work and work effectively, and that's Parliament. That's who we elect to govern us and provide appropriate systems, Johnston told reporters on Tuesday.

He was replying to a question about NSICOP's ability to put partisanship aside. Johnston obviously had bigger things in mind.

Democracy is challenged. And, my heavens, if any country in the world should be making democracy work, it's this country, Canada, Johnston said, jabbing his fingers at the table in front of him. And that's what we must get about.

Might Parliament rise to the occasion? It's at least a nice idea.

AT ISSUE | David Johnston ruled out foreign interference inquiry. Was it a mistake? 

Johnston ruled out foreign interference inquiry. Was it a mistake?

David Johnston has ruled out calling a public inquiry into foreign interference and Prime Minister Trudeau says his government will follow that recommendation. But is it the right move politically? And what happens next?

Aaron Wherry (new window) · CBC News