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Singh calls for foreign interference rapporteur Johnston to step aside

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is pushing for special rapporteur David Johnston to "step aside" from his role examining the issue of foreign interference before he embarks on public hearings.

"I've been very clear in not attacking Mr. Johnston personally and I've maintained that, but… It is very clear that the appearance of bias is so high that it erodes the work that the special rapporteur can do," Singh told reporters in the House of Commons foyer on Monday.

He said that during the pre-scheduled NDP opposition day on Tuesday, his party will advance a motion that will force all MPs to vote on whether to call for Johnston to step aside, and for the federal government to launch a public inquiry.

Opposition days provide opposition parties the chance to set the agenda for debate in the House of Commons around a motion of their choosing. After hours of debate, the motion comes to a vote usually during the next sitting day.

In the motion slated to be debated on Tuesday, sponsor NDP MP Rachel Blaney is calling for Johnston to "step aside" from the role and for the federal government to "urgently establish" an inquiry that:

  • Would be led by an individual selected with unanimous backing from all recognized parties in the House;
  • Would be granted powers to review all aspects of foreign interference from all states, not just China; and
  • Would be asked to present its report and any recommendations ahead of the next dissolution of Parliament or before the next federal election.

The motion, if passed as drafted, also seeks to have the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) which has led the parliamentary study into foreign election interference, report to the House with a recommendation on who could lead this inquiry and what the terms of reference should be.

Blaney's wording also notes that Johnston recommended against a public inquiry "despite noting significant gaps and leaving many questions either unasked or unanswered," and that "serious questions" have been raised about his mandate, the past political donations from the council he retained to support his work, and his conclusions.

"Only a full public inquiry can fully restore the confidence of Canadians in the integrity of our democratic institutions," it reads, contradicting a key conclusion of Johnston's report released last Tuesday, in which he stated that because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence central to the issue, a public review "simply cannot be done."

While pointing to the real threat that foreign election interference poses and the need to address some serious intelligence gaps, Johnston recommended against a public inquiry into the federal government's handling of the issue, but announced plans of his own to conduct public hearings.

This decision was quickly panned by the opposition parties, who pointed to Johnston's call as the latest example of how the former governor general was in a conflict given his close family connection to the Trudeau family and his past membership status with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation that's faced scrutiny over a China-linked donation.

In presenting his report on May 23, Johnston sought to address the politicization around his appointment and made an effort to clarify the "basic facts" of his Trudeau ties, while voicing concerns that the current fervour around his role if it continues, may have a chilling effect on other publicly-minded individuals from stepping into similar positions in the future. 

Given the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois also want an inquiry called, and have questioned Johnston's impartiality, it's probable that the New Democrats could secure enough votes among other opposition MPs to see this motion pass. Efforts to amend the NDP proposal could also be pursued, to secure a wider backing from other parties.

While the motion is non-binding— as past opposition-backed calls for a public inquiry have been— if it passes, it would be yet another message delivered to the governing minority Liberals that the will of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons is for an independent airing of the facts surrounding allegations of foreign meddling by China in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

During the first question period since Johnston's report dropped last week, the federal Liberals faced a barrage of questions about Johnston's first report.

Leading the questions for the Conservatives, Pierre Poilievre continued to describe Johnston as Trudeau's "ski buddy," and accused him of engaging in a "cover up."

"Will he fire this fake rapporteur, and call a public inquiry now?" he asked.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not attend question period. Responding on his behalf, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino focused in on Poilievre's refusal to pursue security clearance to read the full top-secret addendum that underpins Johnston's rationale for rejecting an inquiry.

"It leaves Canadians wondering why? Is it because he would rather play partisan games than do the hard work? I think we know the answer to that question, it is yes," Mendicino said.

Later efforts during Monday's question period saw the Liberals quoting former Conservative prime minster Stephen Harper speaking years ago, about Johnston's credibility.

During a brief scrum on Parliament Hill following question period, Trudeau was asked to comment on Singh's call for Johnston to step down, he didn't respond. Last week, he embraced Johnston's report and said he had "total confidence" in the rapporteur's plans to forge ahead.

CTV News has reached out to Johnston for comment. 



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