The Hamilton Spectator

Can Johnston save PM from himself?


No one in their right mind would have volunteere­d for the job of the “special rapporteur” to chart a path through the tangled web of accusation­s, leaked intelligen­ce reports, public controvers­y and political partisansh­ip that surrounds allegation­s that agents of the Chinese state interfered in the two most recent federal elections.

Only a rare individual, someone with a commitment to public service so deep that they would set aside misgivings about accepting a job that has no job descriptio­n, no terms of reference and no designated authority — “a fake position doing fake work,” as the leader of the Opposition described it.

From what I know of him (and I’ve known him for many years), David Johnston, the former governor general, is one of those special individual­s who, whatever his misgivings — and he must have had some — would not decline if ever his prime minister asked for help.

You will never meet a nicer person in public life than Johnston. At least, I haven’t. There is no pretense about him. He seems immune to the cynicism that infects people who stray too close to the political action. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised his integrity and impartiali­ty when he announced his appointmen­t as special rapporteur.

But what, precisely, is Johnston meant to do? Trudeau did not put it this way, but the mission is to extricate the prime minister from a political crisis that is largely of the PM’s own making. For all his talk of transparen­cy and open government, Trudeau keeps operations as opaque as he can.

He would be in a much better place today if he had been straightfo­rward when he was first questioned in Parliament about the leak of CSIS reports on the activities of Chinese agents. Instead of denials and evasions, he could have said, yes, he was aware of Chinese activities, that he had been briefed on them, was concerned, and had instructed CSIS and the RCMP to redouble their surveillan­ce of the political activities of agents of all foreign powers in Canada.

Given that the opposition parties control a majority of the votes in the Commons, and all of them wanted an independen­t inquiry, it made no sense to stonewall the way he did. He now says he will order an inquiry if Johnston recommends one, which the rapporteur surely will. Being dragged to acceptance of the inevitable is not strong leadership. It’s a sign of indecision and weakness.

It was not the first time that Johnston had been summoned to help rescue a minority government’s prime minister. It happened in 2008 when Conservati­ve Stephen Harper was being besieged to investigat­e allegation­s that members of Brian Mulroney’s Tory cabinet in the early 1980s and some senior officials had accepted bribes from lobbyist/aircraft salesperso­n Karlheinz Schreiber in the Airbus Scandal.

Harper asked Johnston to draft terms of reference for a judicial inquiry. They provided for a narrow inquiry into Mulroney’s acceptance of $300,000 in cash from Schreiber, but they did not permit the inquiry to delve into the murky circumstan­ces of the decision to buy passenger jets from Airbus rather than Boeing. There was no need to look back because that was “well-tilled ground,” Johnston advised.

His advice was dead wrong. The ground had barely been scratched. Three other Airbus customers of that era, the United States, Britain and France, working together, kept tilling the ground; in 2020, they reached a deferred prosecutio­n agreement with Airbus. The company accepted penalties totalling $3.9 billion.

Canada didn’t get a dime, but it did get another seven years of Harper government.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada