Public opinion will not fail to attract the wrath of the opposition conservatives, who have called for a public inquiry.
Foreign interference has become a hot political issue in recent months following explosive intelligence leaks to a Canadian newspaper which said the country was a priority target for Beijing.
The report alleged that a Chinese diplomat was gathering information on a Canadian opposition MP and his family in Hong Kong to pressure him.
Yet the information Canada gathered about it apparently went down a black hole and did not reach senior political leaders or the politician in question – Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong.
Just a week ago, Chong told parliamentarians he only learned about the case by reading the newspaper – a symptom of a “systemic” dysfunction in the way Canadian intelligence interacts with parliamentarians.
Following the rare intelligence leak, Canada expelled the diplomat in question earlier this month and China quickly responded accordingly. China has denied the allegations and insisted it never interferes in any country’s internal affairs.
Trudeau said he was unaware of Chong’s story until it became public, which only raised more questions about how information about threats to national security reach lawmakers, including the Prime Minister himself.
He said Chong’s case was “the most significant, but not the only, example of poor flow and handling of information between agencies, the civil service and ministers.”
Johnston’s report buys Trudeau time and casts doubt on numerous media reports that have fueled a controversy that has raged for months.
“Foreign governments are undoubtedly trying to influence candidates and voters in Canada,” he said when unveiling his report. But he added that “several leaked documents that raised legitimate questions were found to have been misinterpreted in some media reports,” likely for lack of context.
He said “additional public process” was needed and he would hold public hearings into the “serious governance and policy issues” he uncovered during his review of the classified documents. But foreign adversaries would take advantage of classified information if made public and could put people at risk, so only certain parliamentarians would need to be granted security clearance to review his work.
“A public review of classified information simply cannot be done.”
Specifically, the question is to what extent China meddled in Canadian politics and was involved in the last two federal elections, following politically explosive reports that the country sought to influence the results by favor of the ruling liberals, perceived as more pro-Beijing, over more hawkish conservative candidates.
Johnston’s report delved into the weeds and watered down that suggestion — in fact, several, including that the Liberals did not act out of partisan considerations.
There was “no indication that the PRC had a plan to orchestrate a minority liberal government in 2021 or was ‘determined’ that the conservatives would not win,” he said. Johnston has concluded that an allegation that a Liberal MP advised the Chinese consulate to extend the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China is false. But why this is false remains classified.
Trudeau resisted political pressure to call for a public inquiry into the sprawling controversy, but had previously said he would follow whatever Johnston recommends.
Johnston is best known for serving as Governor General of the country, a non-partisan position that represents the British monarchy in Canada. That role, along with his contemplative public persona, would have initially made him seem like the perfect person to diffuse political tension amid calls for a public inquiry. Instead, controversy ensued at every step.
The Conservatives jumped on Johnston’s nomination to be personally close to Trudeau. And for being a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity that became engrossed in the political debate over foreign interference following reports that it had received a large donation from a Chinese billionaire.
Tory leader Pierre Poilievre told reporters on Thursday he hadn’t even bothered to meet with Johnston because he believes he was given a ‘fake job’ and cannot be impartial on the question.
“He is Justin Trudeau’s ski buddy, cabin neighbor, family friend and a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which received $140,000 from Beijing,” he said. “He just needs to hand over (his role) and allow an independent public inquiry into Beijing’s interference.”
Johnston dismissed those criticisms as tenuous and “very troubling” and pointed to his past roles overseeing dozens of independent task forces where his impartiality was never questioned. He says he sought the advice of a former Supreme Court justice, who cleared him of any conflict of interest.
Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole met with Johnston but called it ‘nothing more than a box-checking exercise’ and said the Trudeau Liberals were trying to ‘score their own homework’.
This is Johnston’s first report in what could be several updates as it continues its review, leading up to its expected conclusion this fall.