David Johnston is a man of high integrity. But as rapporteur? We should be in high dudgeon

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Former Governor-General David Johnson appears before a Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on November 6, 2018. Andrew Coyne writes, Johnson is an inappropriate choice for independent special counsel on allegations of China’s election interference.Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

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David Johnson is a remarkable Canadian, a model of integrity and decency throughout a lifetime of personal achievement and public service – as a professor of law, as principal of McGill and as our finest governor-general.

In the case of China’s efforts to interfere in Canadian elections, and whatever accusations may be leveled at the Liberal government for allowing them, it’s a wildly inappropriate choice as an independent special collusion.


The Reporter – an invented title, meaning advisor, although the prime minister has promised to be bound by his recommendations – is to decide, among other things, whether to convene a public inquiry into the matter and on what terms. .

The purpose of a public inquiry with all its quasi-judicial powers and independence is to bring to light things that might otherwise not have been brought to light, or the public might not have believed. It is not clear how is necessary here. Whether and how China interfered in Canadian elections can be assessed by intelligence services – and has been done voluntarily.

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It is the other side of the equation – what the government did or did not do about it, and why – that makes a public inquiry imperative. Leaked intelligence reports allege China interfered in the last two federal elections, through an extensive scheme of undeclared cash donations, illegal reimbursement of contributions, mass nomination meetings, and online whisper campaigns, all in a liberal government With the clear purpose of electing, there are one thing.

But China could not have done this without the cooperation or at least the knowledge of some members of the Liberal Party, and if the party members had known, it is likely that the party leadership would have done so despite the immediate and repeated warnings of the intelligence services. Even without doing this. So the fact that nothing is being done about it is troubling, especially in light of the current government’s history of rapprochement with Beijing.

We don’t know for sure that something untoward happened. But there is a serious possibility that it did. In so far as it is a serious possibility, it must be investigated, and if the investigation is to inspire public confidence, it cannot in any way be influenced or seen by the Prime Minister, the Government or the Liberals Can Team. The government itself cannot investigate.

It is therefore vital that any public inquiry is held honestly at arm’s length from government – ​​as must be the process surrounding it. The point of the independent special relationship was to decide whether to call the inquiry at arm’s length only. With the appointment of Mr Johnson, this can no longer be said with confidence.

First is his personal relationship with the Prime Minister: Mr. Trudeau himself has described him as a lifelong “Family Friend” A friendship cemented over several summers as neighboring cottagers at the Laurentian.

There are also professional associations. his status as one of the 23 “members” of Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation would raise eyebrows, even without the news that the Chinese government, during Mr. Trudeau’s prime ministership, secretly gave $200,000 to the foundation through an intermediary – apparently as part of its influence operation In form of.

The Rideau Hall Foundation, which Mr Johnson founded and chairs, was the recipient. million dollar gift To mark his retirement from the Trudeau government as -Gen. Mr. Johnson is also serving as head of the Leaders’ Debates Commission, a position to which he was appointed by Mr. Trudeau; He will now step down from that role.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these associations, on their own. They do not suggest a lack of integrity on the part of Mr Johnson, nor do they make the case that he is, in the words of a particularly ugly and stupid tweet by a Conservative front-bencher, “Another random liberal.”

But for an office the first requirement of which should be specific independence from the person making the appointment, they are certainly ineligible. Any one of them would bring it into doubt, but together they call into question the Prime Minister’s intention in making the appointment and Mr Johnson’s judgment in taking it.

To borrow a point made by others: If you take someone to court and find that the judge was not only a lifelong friend of the defendant, but partnered with him in various ventures – including bringing the case directly before the court Including touching – well, it won’t happen, that’s all. The judge will never be allowed near the case.

This would not be a comment on the integrity of the judge; Nor is this Mr. Johnson has. The issue, like any conflict of interest case, is not whether she is a good person, but whether her personal and professional relationship with Mr Trudeau could influence her decision – or rather, whether a A reasonable person might wonder whether they did.

This is public ethics 101. It is the responsibility of the office-holder, in this case Mr. Trudeau, to leave no room for any reasonable doubt about the propriety of his actions. It is not the responsibility of the public to clear such doubts. It was up to Mr. Trudeau to appoint someone completely out of his orbit, without any sort of personal or professional connection. Ignoring those connections is not in everyone’s capacity.

To his supporters then, in a tone of offended dignity, “How dare you attack the integrity of Mr. Johnston,” is the transparent deflection. no one is attacking his integrity, At least me. that’s not it. You can be the most honest, high-minded person in the world, and yet have difficulty separating your previously good impression of a person from possibly contradictory facts that may require a rapprochement to evaluate. Is.

The current controversy raises very serious possibilities, including the conduct of the Prime Minister. Anyone who has any responsibility to investigate should at least be able to imagine that the PM is capable of doing wrong things, possibly very wrong things: not that he did, or it is possible that he did, But it is possible that he did.

Would someone with such a close relationship with the Prime Minister have much difficulty imagining such things, more at arm’s length than anyone else? Will he find himself, consciously or otherwise, dismissing such possibilities on the grounds that “he’s not the man I know”? We’ve all been educated on the topic of unconscious bias in recent years. Can we completely rule out the possibility that it would work here?

Furthermore, investigating a sitting prime minister would be, among other things, personally disastrous – for the prime minister and the reporter. This would potentially do irreparable damage to their friendship and to others. Would he be more reluctant to put his friend – or himself – through that without such prior associations?

More to the point, is it at least fair to wonder if he might? As I say, the issue is not whether his decision was colored, but whether a reasonable member of the public might wonder whether it was. Which should never put them in a position to wonder. and it is the duty of the holder of public office to see that they are not.

Consider also the position Mr. Johnston is placed in. If he declined to order a public inquiry, many would wonder whether it was because of his relationship with Trudeau. On the other hand, he may genuinely consider a public inquiry unwise, but feel pressured to order one to prove his independence.

But independence isn’t the only requirement of the job. So good judgment and, shall it be said, nervous. There are a lot of rocks to be turned before that is accomplished, and we may all be shocked by what is revealed. Not everyone has the stomach for that kind of work. Reporter needs.

Here again there is reason to doubt Mr Johnson’s appointment. For all of his long and distinguished career, the experience most directly relevant to his current position as Special Adviser to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the matter of Brian Mulroney’s post-prime ministerial dealings with notorious international arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber. Was. and in this work he flop, badly.

It was Mr Johnston’s responsibility to draw up the terms of reference for a public inquiry chaired by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant into the matter. The most obvious question: whether or not Mr. Schreiber’s $300,000 cash payment to Mr. Mulroney when he was prime minister had anything to do with the decision to award a major aircraft contract to Airbus, the European aerospace consortium .

Yet, incredibly, Mr Johnson’s report recommended the removal of any inquiry into the Airbus case from the inquest order, on the grounds that it had already been fully investigated by the RCMP. It certainly didn’t, as anyone familiar with the case can tell you: The investigation had barely begun.

Mr Oliphant’s report was still extremely damaging – he originally found that Mr Mulroney had repeatedly lied to them – but the restrictive terms of reference ordered by Mr Johnson meant the country had lost its best chance to get to the bottom of the Airbus mess.

Whether it was an error of judgment or a failure of nerve, it was hardly an advertisement for Mr Johnson as term-setter for a more sensitive inquiry – not into the affairs of the former prime minister, but the one who appointed him. .

This is an extraordinary thing. With 40…

David Johnston is a man of high integrity. But as rapporteur? We should be in high dudgeon

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