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Trudeau's pick of former GG Johnston as interference rapporteur under fire from opposition

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The two largest opposition parties have been quick to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pick of former governor general David Johnston as the new special rapporteur tasked with making an all-encompassing assessment of foreign interference and the integrity of Canada's democracy.

Naming someone who was above reproach was said to be a top priority for all ahead of the prime minister making his pick – a decision his office says was made after consultation with opposition parties.

"Canadians need to have confidence in our electoral system, and in our democracy. As Independent Special Rapporteur, David Johnston brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills, and I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it," said the prime minister in a news release on Wednesday.

However, less than 24 hours after Trudeau announced Canada's current federal leaders' debates commissioner would be switching jobs, Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois politicians are voicing concerns over Johnston's impartiality. The New Democrats, and some other notable voices, have since come out to say, though, that they trust Johnston to do the job.

Critics are pointing to a few specific points on Johnston’s resume and comments he's made over his time in public life. Federal Liberals have been quick to come to his defence, decrying the Conservatives for -- as one Liberal MP put it -- walking "all over someone's stellar reputation" just to "get an ounce of political gain out of it."

Tapping an independent rapporteur to take a wide-spanning look at the issue was one commitment Trudeau made earlier this month, as part of a suite of measures. The prime minister announced this role, and has asked a pair of national security bodies to investigate, in an effort to assuage concerns over reporting alleging specific attempts by Beijing to alter the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. 

In their latest denial of interference, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa tweeted Thursday that China has "never interfered in other countries' internal affairs." 

Among the points of contention for the opposition:

  • That Johnston is a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, an independent charitable organization that recently announced it was returning $200,000 it received seven years ago over a reported connection to Beijing. While the foundation is named after his father, the prime minister has not been involved with it since becoming Liberal leader.
  • That then-governor general Johnston visited China in 2013, following a number of past trips to the People's Republic during his academic career. At the time, Conservative cabinet ministers also travelled to China to talk about sparking Chinese investment in Canada. Then Johnston defended a 2017 trip during which he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on the same day Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo died in Chinese custody. Johnston said he brought up China's human rights record during the meeting.
  • That his relationship with the Trudeau family has been described as a long-time close friendship.

"Justin Trudeau has named a 'family friend,' old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the 'independent' rapporteur on Beijing's interference. Get real," said Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre in a Thursday statement. "Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry. Now."

In sharing this message on social media, Poilievre directed his followers to sign a Conservative Party petition that collects signatories' data.

Taking a markedly different approach than the current Conservative leader, 2021 Conservative national campaign director Fred DeLorey said Johnston is "probably the most experienced Canadian to do this."

In an interview with CTV News, DeLorey said Johnston has previously been attacked for being too close to the Conservatives, calling it a constant that whoever is chosen for these high-profile roles will find themselves at the centre of an organized "political campaign" by their opponents. This is what he thinks the Official Opposition is doing now.

Governor General David Johnston smiles as he speaks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper following the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday October 16, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Here are some of the points on his resume Trudeau pointed to in backing up why he chose Johnston:

  • That Johnston was appointed by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be a special adviser drafting the terms of reference for a public inquiry into the Airbus affair in 2007, otherwise known as the Mulroney-Schreiber affair. At the time Harper said he was confident that Johnston would "carry out his duties with diligence and rigour" and provide the federal government with "independent advice" on the way forward.
  • That Harper then went on to appoint Johnston as governor general in 2010, and after extending his tenure into 2017, thanked him for his "outstanding & dedicated public service representing our head of state."
  • That as the debates commissioner Johnston had taken on the task of trying to de-politicize the organization of the official debates during the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns. By making key determinations around who would be able to participate, and negotiating the terms of the debates, Trudeau said Johnston was "contributing actively to our democracy."

"This is a fine Canadian who is incredibly accomplished. Again, my former boss prime minister Harper appointed him to be governor general … And then reappointed him going into the 2015 election, so clearly some Conservatives do have faith in Mr. Johnston,” DeLorey said in a later interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play. 

In an interview with CTV News, former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt said she has a lot of respect for the former governor general, but his history does give ammunition to the Conservatives.

Raitt questioned whether Trudeau anticipated the Official Opposition would "take the bait." 

Though, CTV News political commentator Scott Reid said that what's playing out is "partisan politics in its fullest and ugliest manifestation."

"They're just trying to put a thumb on the scale. If he calls the public inquiry, if Johnston recommends a public inquiry, then they'll say that they pressured him into it. If he fails to, they'll say: 'see, we told you all along, he couldn't be trusted,'" said Reid, who was the director of communications to former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. 

While his mandate has yet to be finalized, Johnston is starting to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections, with the goal of making expert recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians’ confidence in it, including potentially suggesting that a public inquiry be struck.

"The Government of Canada will comply with and implement his public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review, or another independent review process," said Trudeau's office in Wednesday's statement announcing Johnston's appointment. 

On Thursday, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that while he doesn’t want to judge Johnston and has nothing against him personally, Trudeau was ill-advised to name someone meant to assure Canadians that concerns around foreign interference would be given a clear-eyed assessment, who could be viewed in any way as having a conflict.

"I met him a few times, he seemed quite a gentleman to me. However, if you want to make the population feel safe about the choice that you have made, you should pick someone who is not notably and admittedly a friend of the family," Blanchet said. "I will accept nothing but a public independent inquiry."

Asked by reporters during a media availability what he made of Johnston’s appointment, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he trusts him to do the job Trudeau has given him, but that he still thinks what Johnston should do is launch a public inquiry.

"Mr. Johnston is someone of strong reputation, of integrity, and he is someone that's independent and nonpartisan," Singh said, panning other parties for allowing partisanship to cloud the conversation around the integrity of Canada’s electoral processes.

"I want to make sure that his mandate includes all the information important to assess what the prime minister knew, when the prime minister knew that information, and what he did about it. And that includes really important recommendations about what we need to do to safeguard our democracy," said Singh.

While DeLorey maintains that in his view an inquiry would amount to much more than political theatre and a "tremendous waste of time," should Johnston see an inquiry as the best way to get a handle on the current gaps in the law and unite all parties together to pass needed changes, then that would make sense.

While some critics of Trudeau's approach voiced concern that the minority Liberals could fall before Canadians have answers, the federal government has indicated its desire to see Johnston get to work quickly. It remains to be seen what kind of timeline Johnston will be working on.

"I think that the mandate has to be as wide as possible, and the timelines has to be as narrow and short as possible," said national director of the federal New Democrats, Anne McGrath, on CTV News Channel’s Power Play.

"I would hate to hamper Mr. Johnson's work by saying ‘you have to get this done by X amount of days.’ I think that could be a problem. At the same time, he is incredibly experienced at this, so if anyone's going to get this done quickly, it should be him, " DeLorey said. 

Canada-China expert and senior fellow at the University of Ottawa Margaret McCuiag-Johnston said that the former governor general is well-suited to take on this task given his passion for and service to this country

"Imagine then his deep concern with our electoral system upended by an autocracy. He will ensure that actions are taken to fix it," she tweeted. 

In a statement to CTV News on Thursday night, Johnston said: "I am privileged to accept the appointment as the independent special rapporteur to help protect the integrity of Canada's democracy.

"I will work with officials to finalize the mandate, which will be made public promptly, to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections, and make appropriate recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians' confidence in it."

With files from CTV News' Ian Wood and Annie Bergeron-Oliver 

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