NDP praises David Johnston as Tories, Bloc bemoan interference watchdog appointment
OTTAWA — Federal opposition parties continued to call for a public inquiry into foreign interference Thursday, as the NDP welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's choice of a special rapporteur.
On Wednesday, Trudeau announced that former governor general David Johnston will look into allegations of foreign meddling in Canada's last two federal elections and recommend what the Liberal government should do about it.
"Get real," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wrote in a Thursday statement.
"Trudeau must end his cover up," he charged, noting that Trudeau referred to Johnston as a "family friend" in 2017 and that the former viceregal was a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Johnstonhas been "chummy" with China.
"I don't want to make out of that any personal character accusations against Mr. Johnston," he added. "I'm not ready to go there."
Blanchet called the role a superfluous waste of time since opposition parties will still demand a public inquiry. He said he worried the minority government might even fall before Johnston wraps up his work.
The Bloc leader added that the allegations of Chinese interference and the lack of transparency around the matter have created terrible optics for Canada ahead of a visit next week by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Yet NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Johnston a "non-partisan" official known for his integrity, and said the New Democrats welcome his work while still pushing for an inquiry.
"The other opposition parties, and frankly the Liberals as well, have been more focused on scoring political points than really focusing on solutions around protecting our democracy," Singh argued during a press conference in Toronto.
Trudeau has said the appointment was made after consultations with all parties in the House of Commons, though the NDP said Johnston's name was not raised with them during the consultations.
The appointment came after Global News and the Globe and Mail newspaper reported allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
The Canadian Press requested an interview Thursday with Johnston; Trudeau's office and the Privy Council Office had not responded by the afternoon.
Conservative strategist Jamie Ellerton said the process would be flawed regardless of whether Trudeau appointed someone "genuinely above reproach," because he Liberals have avoided answering questions.
"There is a serious crisis of confidence in our democratic institutions and just what the scope and scale of Chinese interference has taken place," said Ellerton, a founding partner at with the public-relations firm Conaptus.
"It just further goes to show how out of touch this prime minister is in dealing with this crisis."
Yet Liberal strategist Carlene Variyan said Johnston is probably the best person to help manage a situation where laws and protocol limits what Ottawa can tell the public.
"There was always going to be a very limited pool of individuals who would be eligible and appropriate to take on a job like this," she said, arguing very few would lack any tangential tie to a politician or party.
Variyan previously advised the Trudeau on communications around security matters, including the rollout of a panel that monitors elections for interference.
She argued Johnston can help move the issue beyond scoring political points, which she says comes at "too precious a cost" to democracy.
"Intelligence is one stream of information, and when you start to have arbitrary pieces of that information that trickle into the public domain, it can create a lot of fear and uncertainty," she said.
"This is the explicit goal of a lot of these foreign actors, so they've had a really good few weeks."
Ian Greene, a professor emeritus at York University who specializes in public administration and ethics, said the perception of conflict of interest is often more important than whether there is an actual conflict.
Yet he argued Johnston is being maligned by the criticism.
"The allegations of a conflict of interest are groundless; I don't see any way in which he could benefit from the situation. He's at the end of his career," he said.
"There is nobody who I could think of that would have a better background to offer impartial advice about this."
Greene also said he was an active Tory decades ago, but he argued the party has moved away from thoughtful criticism more than its opponents, particularly on emotive issues.
"I see the Conservative Party today as being filled with leaders with very little integrity and it's unfortunate for the country."
For its part, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa insisted Beijing does not interfere in internal affairs.
"It is the responsibility of consular institutions to have extensive contacts and carry out friendly exchanges with local governments and all circles of society," the embassy wrote on Twitter.
"Infiltration and interference is never in the genes and tradition of China's foreign policy."
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a China expert at the University of Ottawa who is often critical of Beijing, praised the appointment of Johnston. The two are not related.
"We know he is passionate about (Canada), having served our country impeccably for decades," she wrote on Twitter.
"Imagine then his deep concern with our electoral system upended by an autocracy. He will ensure that actions are taken to fix it."
Johnston's recommendations could include a public inquiry or another independent review process, and the Liberals have pledged to make his recommendations public and abide by the guidance.
A mandate for the new role is being finalized and will be made public, Trudeau's office said.
Since 2018, Johnston has been a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
The Trudeau Foundation's website says members appoint the board of directors, approve bylaw changes and appoint the non-profit's external auditor. The charity has previously said that Trudeau ended his formal involvement with it in 2014.
Johnston was named governor general on the advice of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, who extended his initial five-year term in early 2015. He continued in the role after Trudeau was elected that fall, serving until 2017.
During his seven years as viceregal, he led more than 50 international visits.
Shortly after delivering the throne speech in October 2013, Johnston travelled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an effort to renew Chinese investment in Canada.
That was his first official visit as governor general, but he had been to China about a dozen times during his academic career.
In 2017, Johnston faced criticism for another meeting with Xi in Beijing the same day that Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and celebrated political activist, died in Chinese custody.
At the time, Johnston told CTV News he raised the issue and China's human rights record with Xi.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.
— With files from David Fraser.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press