Special rapporteur Johnston rejects call to 'step aside' after majority of MPs vote for him to resign
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts to assure Canadians that his government is adequately addressing the threat of foreign interference took a hit on Wednesday, when the majority of MPs in the House of Commons voted for special rapporteur David Johnston to "step aside," a call Johnston quickly rejected.
Opposition MPs teamed up to pass an NDP motion calling for Johnston to remove himself from the role as rapporteur over recommending against a public inquiry, and in light of the "serious questions" raised about his mandate and conclusions.
The motion—passed by a vote of 174 to 150— also revives a call for the federal government to "urgently establish" a public inquiry, with specific parameters around what the inquiry would look like, from the scope spanning all foreign states and how the person helming it should be chosen, to the timeline for completion.
While a symbolic move, as the motion is non-binding and Johnston remains on the job, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday he hopes it sends a message to Trudeau that Johnston no longer has the confidence of the House of Commons to continue with his plans to hold public hearings and dig further into the inter-governmental intelligence-sharing gaps.
"There's really no reason now to continue with Mr. Johnston when it has become very clear—this is nothing personal about Mr. Johnston or his credibility—but the appearance of bias is too strong that it undermines the work that the prime minister hoped that Mr. Johnston would be able to do," Singh said.
While the NDP leader said he thinks the "honourable" thing for the former governor general to do would be to respect the will of the majority of MPs and step away from his role, Johnston made it clear Wednesday afternoon that he has no plans to stop investigating allegations of Chinese government interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections and the adequacy of the existing safeguards.
"When I accepted the mandate to act as Independent Special Rapporteur, I did so with full knowledge of the fact that the work ahead would be neither straightforward nor uncontroversial," Johnston said in a statement. "I have delivered on the first part of my mandate with the report presented last week... That said, as I have indicated, there is much work yet to be done and a further public process is required."
Johnston said that while he "deeply" respects the right of the House of Commons to "express its opinion about my work going forward" his mandate is from the government and he feels that he has a "duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed."
"My mandate is only one part of the array of work that can be undertaken, and I welcome the contribution of others," Johnston said.
"Trudeau doesn't actually value Parliament, doesn't actually believe in our democratic institutions, and doesn't care whose reputation he destroys in his quest to cling to power and to keep the truth hidden on this," said Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, when asked before Johnston's statement was issued what it would signal if he didn't respect the House asking him to step down.
"This whole thing was a conflict of interest from the get go," Scheer said.
Since the motion was first put on the agenda on Monday, debate over Johnston's impartiality—given his past personal and professional ties to the prime minister's family and a foundation bearing the Trudeau name—has been front and centre in the House of Commons.
The Liberals—who were united in voting against the motion without it being a whipped vote—have consistently defended Johnston as someone previously tapped by Conservatives for key independent roles, and voiced confidence in his continued work. They chalk the attacks he's facing up to little more than the opposition parties playing "partisan games" with a serious issue.
Bolstering this argument, the Liberals say, is the continued refusal from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet to seek security clearances in order to read the confidential annex of Johnston's report that shed light on the intelligence underpinning his findings.
This resistance, from Poilievre's perspective, is that he would be forced to "take an oath of silence" if he took Trudeau up on his offer.
He is of the view that it would stop him from being able to challenge the government's handling of the file, despite that being something he is free to do now based on publicly available information, even after seeing his predecessor Erin O'Toole speak at length in the House after receiving a briefing from CSIS about being targeted.
"There is absolutely no question that China, Russia and other actors are attempting to influence our democracy... To judge the conclusions of Mr. Johnston without even looking at the information is, in my opinion, premature and political in nature," said Government House Leader Mark Holland on Wednesday.
Trudeau continues to refuse to entertain the opposition's unrelenting demands for an inquiry, saying that the reason that back in March he chose an "unimpeachable man" to make the decision was to "remove it from the political realm."
"The current leadership across our intelligence agencies and across the public service continue to say that the best way to move forward on this is not with a public inquiry that would have to happen behind closed doors," Trudeau said.
While the NDP spearheaded this move, the Conservatives continue to press on Singh to show how serious they are about a public inquiry by making it a condition of his continued supply-and-confidence deal propping-up the minority Liberals.
However, Singh has made it clear that he doesn't intend to pull his support and thrust the country into an early election at a time when questions continue to swirl around the resiliency of Canada's democratic institutions. His view is that Trudeau "enabling" Poilievre's politicking "every day that he passes on a public inquiry."
As a result of the motion passing, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) which has led the parliamentary study into foreign election interference, has been instructed to report to the House with a recommendation on who could lead this inquiry, and what the terms of reference should be.