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What the heck is David Johnston thinking?
By taking on Trudeau’s latest political hot potato, Canada's former GG is doing more harm than good. Here's why.
As a crisis about foreign interference in Canada’s elections threatens to deal a death blow to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's polling numbers, yesterday, he announced that he had selected former Governor General David Johnston to lead a review regarding whether a full, public inquiry on the issue is needed.
That Trudeau tapped Johnston to get involved in the matter isn't a surprise. The move politically benefits Trudeau.
What Trudeau needs right now, more than anything, is to buy time to change the channel on an issue that has seen his net favourability crater. That is, for reasons unknown, Trudeau hasn't launched a full, independent public inquiry into the allegations of foreign election interference. He has held firm to this position while serious questions regarding what he knew, and when he knew it, remain unanswered.
Enter the interim process that Johnston has been tapped to lead. That is, an internal, PMO-driven, opaque report-writing process that will supposedly determine if a public inquiry is necessary.
But if Trudeau's interim process is to be viewed as anything more than a lengthy, politically motivated delay of action, it needs to be led by someone who is completely without ties to the Liberals. There are many unanswered questions regarding Trudeau’s knowledge of what happened, and his recalcitrance to answer those questions is raising eyebrows, to put it mildly. So someone leading an inquiry process who could even remotely be considered to be biased towards Trudeau would only further erode public confidence in Canada's democratic system.
This is because no matter the outcome, a report by someone with obvious ties to the Liberals that recommends no public inquiry will be dismissed as a cover-up. And even if an author has only the slightest Liberal ties, if the report does eventually recommend an inquiry, the whole process could be viewed as a costly delay.
But these facts are currently at odds with Trudeau's primary objective; his own political survival. In order to succeed in that regard, Trudeau needed this interim process to be led by someone that fit four criteria. It had to be led by someone with enough credibility to legitimize the process and cast doubt on if a public inquiry is needed. He needed someone that had passed muster by the Conservative Party for a past appointment, so that point could be used to quell objections from the opposition. It also wouldn’t hurt Trudeau to have someone who could reliably be sympathetic towards him.
But most importantly, Trudeau needed someone willing to lend their name to a process that will almost certainly lack both independence and transparency.
Johnston fit at least three of these four criteria, and the only question for Trudeau must have been if Johnston would agree to take it on.
On the credibility front, Johnston has an impressive resume, and any gaffes that he has made in the past have largely been overlooked by the press in favour of his affable nature and his maintenance of a low-key public persona.
On the Conservative appointment side of things, he was appointed by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be Governor General.
But since his retirement as Governor General, Johnston has arguably built his Trudeau-affiliated bonafides. He occupies a senior position with the Trudeau Foundation. And, his own foundation - the Rideau Hall Foundation - received funds from the Liberal government. And, while this probably was done without motive, he did fudge up the federal election debate commission process in ways that arguably benefited the Liberals (1, 2, 3, 4).
So while it's easy to see why Trudeau would tap Johnston for the role, I can't for the life of me understand why Johnston would be silly or irresponsible enough to agree to take it on. He must have known that his recent ties to the Trudeau Foundation would automatically politicize any report that he authored on foreign election interference. Maybe he truly doesn't understand what's at stake here, or that he's naïve enough to think that his suitability wouldn’t be questioned. And maybe he actually can’t see that he can't see that he’s possibly being used by Trudeau to put a fig leaf on a string of very bad political decisions.
But this lack of judgement, more than anything else, is why he should recuse himself from the appointment.
If he can't see these things, what else is he going to miss in the review of foreign election interference, or turn a blind eye to?
It is right to ask these questions of Mr. Johnston, former Governor General or not. This inquiry is unlike anything we've seen in recent history in Canada, including inquiries Mr. Johnston has previously been involved in. The recent allegations of foreign interference present a direct, pressing attack on the entirety of our Canadian democratic system because they hit the core of it - our election system.
For this interim public inquiry determination process to be anything more than a political ploy for Trudeau, it needs to be led by someone who is completely without ties to Trudeau, and Johnston does not fit that bill. Just because he was appointed by Harper to a largely ceremonial role over a decade ago does not zero out the fact that he has since built too-close ties to the Trudeau family to be deemed neutral in this new role. He should know that his current role at the Trudeau Foundation alone should be enough to disqualify him on this front.
Also, Johnston has past missteps that have never been seriously vetted due to the ceremonial nature of the Governor General role that he occupied. These matters will undoubtedly now be brought to light because he's chosen to accept a role that demands that this be done. His state visit wherein a notable dissident was killed is already being scrutinized.
Worse, the Liberals are probably hoping that opposition parties and the Press Gallery will turn to litigating the issues with Johnston’s appointment instead of continuing to focus on quickly getting to the bottom of this mess, thus muddying reporting and confusing the public enough that they lose interest. Johnston, for his love of democracy, could prevent this from happening by declining the role.
It’s irresponsible for anyone to argue that these issues shouldn't disqualify him. Doing so does a disservice to Canadians who desperately want their faith in our electoral system to be renewed. While Johnston is undoubtedly a nice, grandfatherly like figure with a strong resume, contrary to what some in the Press Gallery have said, he is not "unimpeachable" enough to lead this particular process. While there are many other roles Mr. Johnston would be a great choice for, this is not one of them. And if he's as experienced as everyone claims he is, he should know this to be true.
So if Johnston really cares about Canada’s democracy he'd see the reality of the situation and recuse himself from the role. That there has already been credible, beyond partisan, public disapproval over his appointment should be evidence enough for him to choose this path.
The person in charge of any inquiry into Canada’s foreign election interference scandal needs to be selected by someone other than Trudeau or the PMO. Their politics need to be invisible, they need to be qualified to get the job done, and most importantly, be free of any close ties to the Trudeau family and frankly, any other political actor.
Mr. Johnston might fit some of those criteria, but he certainly doesn't fit them all.
The good thing is that there are millions of other Canadians who do. If Trudeau really cared about doing things right, he would have tapped any one of them instead. At the very least, Mr. Johnston should have suggested that he do the same.
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