The Hamilton Spectator

David Johnston wrote the book on trust


Former governor general David Johnston probably didn’t know he was filling out a job applicatio­n when he wrote the introducti­on to his 2018 book, “Trust.”

But now that Johnston has been handed the task of nothing less than protecting the integrity of Canada’s democracy — that is exactly the job descriptio­n for this “special rapporteur” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Wednesday — many of the words in the opening chapter of “Trust” look like he was anticipati­ng being hauled once again into public service.

“There are many opportunit­ies to manipulate others and … the manipulati­on could be murky enough to defy detection,” Johnston writes.

“What you rely on is putting as much informatio­n as you can in the open marketplac­e so people can make fully informed decisions,” he says. “An uninformed citizen is a voter who can be manipulate­d into voting for some strange things without even knowing that their vote is being exploited.”

There is a lot more in those pages, written more than five years ago, to demonstrat­e that Johnston is a man who’s done some serious thinking about the questions awaiting him as he sorts out what Canadians need to know about foreign interferen­ce in our elections.

His task now is to look at all that’s being alleged about China’s attempts to meddle in Canada’s political process, and to assess whether an inquiry is needed and what form that inquiry will take if it does happen.

It’s not a small task. Essentiall­y, Johnston first has to airlift this whole foreign interferen­ce story out of the partisan mess where it now resides. The sooner the better. Conservati­ves were piling on to Johnston’s appointmen­t in the immediate aftermath of the announceme­nt, raising doubts about this statesman’s legitimacy in the same way they’ve been sowing doubts about everything from the prime minister’s loyalty to the results of the last two elections. If nothing else, that kneejerk reaction demonstrat­ed exactly why this controvers­y needs some adult supervisio­n, now.

Leaving aside the partisan circus, there will be an obvious reaction: what, this “eminent Canadian” again? Are there no others?

Johnston was an excellent governor general from 2010 to 2017 — appointed by thenprime minister Stephen Harper — and then went on to head up the commission that oversaw federal election debates in 2019 and 2021. Trudeau’s government clearly sees him as uniquely qualified to be a nonpartisa­n referee in a polarized political world — so unique, one wonders, that there are no others like him?

Johnston has also done a job like this before. In 2007, Harper asked him to sort out how to handle an inquiry into financial dealings between German businesspe­rson Karlheinz Schreiber and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. That, too, for those who have forgotten, was a controvers­y with its own shades of alleged foreign interferen­ce.

Johnston is 81, roughly the same age as U.S. President Joe Biden, and while this retiree isn’t aspiring to lead the free world, he is being called upon to assure Canadians that our elections are free and fair. And, it should be stressed, Johnston’s success won’t be judged by the political players but by Canadians themselves.

Still, politician­s on all sides might want to crack open the first pages of “Trust” to see their way through this next phase of the foreign interferen­ce story and where it should be headed.

“An important distinctio­n must be made between manipulati­on and persuasion. The worst leaders manipulate by failing to disclose vital informatio­n or by disclosing only the informatio­n that supports their views, decisions and actions. The best leaders persuade in great part by being open about their motives and goals.”

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