As always, several things can be true at the same time.
David Johnston may be both a flawed choice for scrutinizing the government’s response to foreign interference intelligence — and the target of unfair treatment since taking on that task. The Prime Minister should have asked someone else to become Special Rapporteur – and Johnston’s reception from his critics may have reduced the number of people willing and able to do the job.
That most members of the House of Commons have called for Johnston to resignhis position is hardly tenable. But he is apparently determined to get the job done. And the process he initiated may still be salvageable.
According to Johnston, the extent of his relationship with Trudeau – what Johnston himself called their “so-called friendship” – is exaggerated. 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 house 30 miles away). On one occasion, Johnston said, he drove the Trudeau boys to their mother’s house, six miles from Johnston’s apartment.
According to Johnston, he and Justin Trudeau crossed paths occasionally when Johnston was the principal of McGill University and Trudeau was a student there (Trudeau graduated in 1994). They had no further interaction, he said, until Trudeau became an MP (he was elected in 2008) and Johnston was appointed governor-general (Johnston took over in 2010).
Johnston was still governor-general when Trudeau became prime minister. The Trudeau family live in Rideau Cottage, located on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General.
On the basis of those facts, it is at least a stretch to describe Johnston as Trudeau’s “ski buddy,” “neighbor,” or “personal friend,” as the Conservative Party often refers to him.
WATCH: Pierre Poilièvre questions David Johnston’s decision not to recommend a public inquiry
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 would certainly have been better off finding someone else to act as the Special Rapporteur on the prime minister for foreign interference. At the very least, Trudeau and his advisers should have anticipated the attacks Johnston now faces.
Johnston’s desire to say yes when a Prime Minister asks for help is admirable. But in this case, it seems that the prime minister asked him to jump into a tank of piranhas.
That’s for sure much to say for Johnston. And if it was a mistake on Trudeau’s part to hire him for this job, it was probably also a mistake on Stephen Harper’s part to ask Johnston to advise him on an investigation into Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber (the Mulroney administration has appointed 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 (which put Johnston in a position where he had to preside over an election in which Trudeau was prominent).
But if Trudeau had to find someone whose background was beyond question. Johnston was not that kind of person.
Mind you, the past few weeks might also lead you to wonder just how many perfectly flawless people there are in Canada.
If not Johnston, then who?
While the main point 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 a person to conduct a public inquiry could lead to foreign interference. The motion says the individual must have the “unanimous support” of all recognized parties.
It would be interesting to see if the parties – or even just the opposition parties – are able to find someone they can agree on.
WATCH: Opposition MPs say David Johnston should step aside
Although the phrase “conflict of interesthas been thrown around a lot, it’s not clear that Johnston is actually in it in this case. It would also be hard to prove – at least so far – that Johnston displayed any sort of bias in his research or recommendations.
Evidence of bias is generally considered beside the point. Even the perception of bias or conflict should be avoided. That makes sense. But it also grants considerable power to those who observe – in this case MPs and opposition pundits.
It’s safe to assume that no one who has had any involvement with the Trudeau Foundation qualifies (that excludes two former Conservative cabinet ministers and several former Supreme Court justices). The individual clearly cannot have had many interactions with the Prime Minister or any member of his family.
Any connection to China could arouse suspicion (Conservative MP Luc Berthold noted this week that three of Johnston’s daughters went to university in China). A record of political donations is also likely disqualifying (concerns have been raised that one of the lawyers who advised Johnston donated to the Liberal Party).
Is any previous political involvement allowed? What about publicly expressed political views? Or a previous government appointment?
What everyone overlooks
An open debate among MPs about who could do the job would at least clarify whether there are more than a few people in this country who could run the partisan gauntlet and come out unscathed.
In the end, it might turn out that no Special Rapporteur would ever be acceptable, because whoever it was would stand 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 be considered a major report on China’s attempts to interfere with Canadian democracy and the government’s mishandling of intelligence. Were it not for the fact that Johnston’s report was preceded by such sensational allegations and partisan allegations of a political cover-up – and the fact that Johnston felt some of the claims should be debunked – his findings could be regarded as deeply alarming.
At the moment there are certainly people who do not accept what comes out of the current process. That group is now larger than it needed to be.
If there remains a narrow path to anything that could narrow the ranks of the suspicious and cynical, it would mean that Johnston does meaningful work with the public hearings he has promised and that the National Security and Intelligence Committee of parliamentarians credibly wise Johnston’s work.
A defensible conclusion to this process could 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 productive discussion, then it is also fair to say that, seven months into this political storm, the only winner seems to be China – that at least it has managed to settle discord and sow doubt.