The resignation of David Johnston from his role as the federal Liberal government’s “independent special rapporteur” looking into allegations of interference by China in Canadian elections leaves Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with few options other than to commission the public inquiry that opposition parties have been demanding since the allegations first surfaced.
“I think the only path forward here is the one that is becoming the only choice, which is a public inquiry. Just do it and get it going,” said Dennis Molinaro, former national security analyst and scholar who specializes in Chinese interference.
“It would be the most rigorous and the most acceptable to all” parties, he said.
Dominic Leblanc, Trudeau’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, is said to have been assigned after Johnston’s resignation Friday to determine the next possible options for the government, including consulting with opposition parties.
David Johnston resigns as special rapporteur into foreign interference
Critics say David Johnston was compromised by his deep affection for China
Johnston announced late Friday afternoon that he would quit before the end of June after months of opposition criticism over his suitability as special rapporteur, due to perceived conflicts from his longstanding family friendship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The prime minister had tasked Johnston with investigating allegations of interference by China in federal elections and recommending whether to hold a public inquiry, which Johnston ultimately recommended against. The allegations had suggested the interference had benefited the Liberals, and the Trudeau government had not taken intelligence warnings about the interference seriously.
“This whole process, it was plagued from the start with problems,” Molinaro said.
In place of a public inquiry, which Johnston had said would be redundant to his own investigations and would have limited public evidence due to the sensitivity of certain intelligence, Johnston offered to chair a series of meetings, involving the public and government officials, to discuss foreign interference. The prime minister supported the recommendation.
One option available to Trudeau now is to hire a new special rapporteur and proceed with the plan to hold public meetings instead of a full-scale inquiry.
Another option would be to simply abandon any further discussion or investigation and declare the matter settled, regardless of what the opposition thinks about it, although that is bound to strain relations with the NDP, which has agreed to hold up Trudeau’s minority government with a supply-and-confidence agreement, .
In his resignation letter Friday, Johnston recommended the prime minister work with opposition parties to appoint a new special rapporteur to proceed with his proposal.
“I encourage you to appoint a respected person with national security experience to complete the work that I recommended,” he wrote. “Ideally you would consult with opposition parties to identify suitable candidates to lead this effort.”
All the parties have been demanding a public inquiry since the allegations first surfaced earlier this year, and last week, all three united in the House to vote for a motion calling for Johnston’s resignation. The leaders of all three parties reiterated Friday their demands for a full public inquiry.
Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst and assistant professor at Carleton University, said the prime minister can’t rely on a “hybrid solution” anymore.
“It’s either going to be an inquiry or nothing,” Carvin said. “And if that’s the case, then make that decision, make it quickly, and then act accordingly. And if you do have an inquiry, we’ve lost three months of prep work.”
Trudeau did not consult opposition leaders when he appointed Johnston, an academic and former governor general with no intelligence background who was a member of the Trudeau foundation, which has found itself at the centre of allegations of Chinese influence operations targeting the prime minister.
Molinaro said any future decisions by Trudeau on how to proceed must be done in consultation with opposition parties, who were themselves the alleged targets of Chinese misinformation, voter suppression and intimidation efforts, according to briefings that MPs received from CSIS.
“This issue concerns the opposition as much as it concerns the government, Molinaro said. “This is something that is very deeply concerning to them because it affected them.”
Public inquiries have been known to take years, however. And Carvin and Molinaro said that the government needs to start taking steps to protect Canada immediately, including those already highlighted by Johnston in his first report, released last month.
In his report, Johnston highlighted widespread dysfunction in intelligence-sharing in the Canadian government, with important national security information separated by silos and often not reaching the people who needed to see it.
“The diagnosis of the problems within the structure of the Canadian government are severe, and there’s no reason those can’t be acted on immediately,” Carvin said. “Fixing the machinery of government issues doesn’t need an inquiry, and it doesn’t need legislation. There are steps that a lot of these problems can be fixed now.”
“In an ideal world, the PM finds the ideal person to replace Johnston and we have an adult debate on how to better counter foreign interference,” Thomas Juneau, a former strategic analyst at the Department of National Defence and now assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, tweeted Friday after news of Johnston’s resignation broke. “The dirty little secret here is that we actually have a pretty good idea of the reforms that are necessary to better counter foreign interference.”