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.”