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‘Just trust us’ justice: The Hub reacts to the David Johnston report on Chinese foreign interference

Commentary

The highly anticipated report on allegations of Chinese foreign interference in Canada’s elections from special rapporteur David Johnston is finally here, and its dramatic conclusion—no need to call a public inquiry, actually—raised eyebrows in Ottawa and the hackles of opposition politicians across the country. Pierre Poilievre called it a “cover-up”, Yves-François Blanchet claimed “the regime in China is celebrating,” and Jagmeet Singh expressed how “deeply disappointed” he was and pledged to “use all our tools in Parliament to get answers for Canadians.”

Here at The Hub, we have assembled a handful of our top contributors for their instant reactions to the report and its implications.

David Johnston was the wrong man for the job

By Howard Anglin

Prime Minister Trudeau put David Johnston in an impossible situation, but somehow he still managed to make it worse. His report into the federal government’s response to PRC interference in Canadian politics confirmed what was obvious to apparently everyone but Trudeau and himself: that he was not the right person for the job.

He was the wrong choice not (only) because of his long-standing friendship with Trudeau’s family, but because he does not possess the skill set to investigate the problem effectively. In his press conference, Johnston defended his qualifications as a former law professor, university administrator, and member of several federal and provincial inquiries. It’s all very impressive, and irrelevant.

I wrote at the time of Johnston’s appointment that Trudeau should have opted for a “retired intelligence mandarin or ex-cabinet minister” from one of our Five Eyes partners. Someone like this or this. This is because a proper assessment of the threat and the adequacy of Canada’s response requires someone with a deep practical knowledge of electoral politics and/or of foreign security and intelligence work. Johnston has neither.

Perhaps that is why the report’s general tone is one of genial credulity. Time and again Johnston notes an allegation, hints at the very real possibility of foreign interference—a stated intent to interfere, evidence of disinformation, a compromised politician—and then just lets it go. In virtually every case, it turns out that the responsible agency, board, or panel was unable to confirm the allegation. In other cases, he repeats the reassuring conclusion of a subsequent report by yet another government insider that everything worked just fine.

Now, it may be the case that every one of our federal intelligence agencies, boards, committees, and rapid response panels is doing a bang-up job. But I wouldn’t just take their word for it, as Johnston seems content to do. Johnston’s report never once questions their work or the quality of the evidence they provided him. If they say there’s insufficient evidence, that’s the answer. He never asks if it’s a good enough answer. His conclusions are those of a reporter, not a rapporteur.

In the end, Johnston says that subject deserves a further “public process, but not a Public Inquiry,” which “should focus on strengthening Canada’s capacity to detect, deter and counter foreign interference.” And then he appoints—surprise!—himself to carry out that job. That continuing lack of self-awareness alone is disqualifying. 

Johnston’s oversight was anything but independent

By Rahim Mohamed

The (rather anticlimactic) findings of special rapporteur David Johnston’s first report on Chinese election meddling are further proof that a small, incestuous clique of Laurentian insiders exercise altogether too much control over our nation’s politics—extending even to the putatively “independent’ oversight of government. Johnston, who once literally lived next door to the Trudeaus in Laurentian cottage country (you can’t make this stuff up), and more recently took a volunteer position with the Trudeau Foundation, should have known better than to accept the highly sensitive job of special rapporteur to begin with. His first report will give little comfort to those who were already skeptical about his impartiality.

Bizarrely, Johnston reserves his strongest rhetoric for the members of the intelligence community who leaked details of the Chinese interference to the press, writing, “It is a matter of urgency that all efforts be made to identify and hold the leaker(s) responsible. Malice cannot be ruled out.”

Somewhat buried in the report is confirmation of the allegation that former Liberal MP Han Dong, the politician at the centre of the scandal, “discussed the “two Michaels (Kovrig and Spavor)” with a PRC official—presumably without obtaining the go-ahead from Foreign Affairs or the PMO beforehand. This alone is a serious transgression that places Mr. Dong’s fitness to continue on as an MP in question.

Even more concerning are the details former Conservative party Erin O’Toole has shared about his meeting with the special rapporteur last week. O’Toole wrote via Substack that the perfunctory, last-minute meeting left him “with the clear impression that my meeting was nothing more than a box checking exercise”; adding that Johnston told him mid-discussion that his report was already being translated to French (implying that the bulk of it had already been written). O’Toole, who has announced that he will be stepping away from politics at the end of the current legislative session, has no political incentive to misrepresent the details of his meeting with Johnston. His account is highly credible and should be taken as strong evidence of the slapdash, haphazard nature of this process.

Johnston has recommended against a full public inquiry into Chinese election interference; but his evident lack of professionalism may, in fact, justify a subsequent investigation into his conduct as special rapporteur.

‘Just trust us’ justice

By Joanna Baron

At his press conference today, David Johnston engaged in more hand-wringing over the CSIS leakers than over the actual bad actors from Beijing who, it is common ground, attempted to interfere in our political process. His remarks bore an unpleasant trace of deja-vu with another argument that Canadians have been clobbered with lately: that the facts at the core of the question are simply too sensitive and would present too much danger to air out publicly.

This was the tactic the Trudeau government took at last fall’s Public Order Emergency Commission: the legal opinion that allegedly formed their entire basis for acting, and other pertinent discussions, could not be approached from a seeming ten-mile radius without threatening solicitor-client privilege. It made any answer to a deeply important question—what was the PM thinking when he invoked the Act?—void of meaning.

Back then and now, there are ways in which a free society can ask difficult questions and tread on sensitive terrain while preserving state secrets. In court cases concerning national security, an amicus curiae, a security-cleared lawyer acting as an impartial friend of the court, is often appointed. Such a role could be adapted for the purpose of a public inquiry into the interference allegations: government claims of privilege could be reviewed on an expedited basis with the participation of amici. Parliament should not relent in its demand for a public inquiry.

Ginny Roth: Poilievre’s winning strategy: Appealing to tried and true common sense

Commentary

“Are you serious?” a wide-eyed, Pierre Poilievre asked the reporter quizzing him about crime and bail reform last week.

Poilievre and the Conservative Party MPs behind him seemed genuinely shocked at the premise of the question. It’s a familiar feeling for many of us. Increasingly, regular people are left shaking their heads, baffled by the latest term they’re expected to use, premise they’re supposed to understand, or public policy trend they’re supposed to accept. It’s not that they don’t get it. It’s that it defies common sense.

In that moment, Poilievre was channeling our collective befuddlement, as the journalist clumsily tried to suggest that keeping repeat, violent criminals behind bars would somehow not prevent more crimes from occurring. The most generous interpretation of the journalist’s line of question is that he was trying to suggest there are root causes that initiate a first-time criminal’s descent into violence. But even if that were his intent (and given his follow-up questions, it seems unlikely), the fact remains that when criminals are in jail, they can’t commit more crimes…because they’re in jail.

Indeed, the data is so compelling that even the Trudeau government is now carrying out some much-needed reform. And yet, the reporter felt the need to carry water for an ideological approach that defies all logic, either because he genuinely believes loose bail policy works, despite the evidence to the contrary, or, more likely, because he’s captured by a new, progressive worldview increasingly dominant in Canadian institutions, including the Parliamentary press gallery, that is completely out of touch with reality. 

It’s hard to define the new bias of elite liberal institutions. Calling it wokeness feels overdone, and maybe a bit cheap. But a week before Poilievre shook his head at the reporter’s ridiculous question, Canada’s prime minister opted to drape himself and his party in the moniker, so it seems as useful a descriptor as any. Whatever it is, you know it when you see it. A contradictory blend of liberal individualism and critical theory, new progressivism puts language before action, identity before community, and future before history. It cancels people, it virtue signals, and it experiments with radical public policy. More importantly, it can be alienating. Woke culture tends to champion what Rob Henderson calls luxury beliefs, views that are alienating in their substance (you’re unlikely to be able to justify defunding the police if you live in a crime-filled neighbourhood), and their language (comprised of a dictionary of new terms that seem to change on a weekly basis).

But railing against wokeness will only get Canadians who oppose it so far. The culture war dynamic has become so predictable as to be boring, and the fact that it often happens online means that regular Canadians, the mainstream normies who will make up most voters in the next election, will need more than just anti-woke railing to capture their attention. Poilievre has landed on exactly the right frame for communicating a positive, alternative worldview, one that doesn’t just oppose wokeness, but that champions good old-fashioned common sense.

Poilievre mastered the anti-woke attack during last year’s Conservative Party leadership race. He called out cancel culture on campus, exposed the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s virtue signalling on climate change, and targeted the government’s out-of-control spending on pet issues while inflation raged. Each attack was accompanied by a detailed alternative policy proposal—free speech protections on campus, approving Canadian oil and gas projects, a pay-as-you-go spending commitment, and many, many more. But the effect was to draw a contrast, to enhance the negative, and to show voters what Poilievre opposed—and for good reason, he was auditioning to be leader of the opposition. Now, as the next general election nears, Poilievre’s challenge is to bring a stronger, positive narrative framework to his policies, and he’s starting to do just that.

In response to Trudeau’s Liberal convention appeal, Poilievre posted a video in his signature, on-the-go selfie style, juxtaposing Trudeau’s woke policies with his own common-sense approach. Where Trudeau would ban hunting rifles, attacking innocent farmers and sport shooters, Poilievre would bring in bail reform, targeting repeat violent criminals. Where Trudeau would support the so-called “safe supply” of harmful addictive drugs, Poilievre would prioritize treatment. Where Trudeau would raise the carbon tax, Poilievre would cancel it, and so on.

Poilievre’s focus on framing his commitments through the lens of common sense isn’t entirely new. He’s railed against the gatekeepers and spoken passionately about the common people for years, peppering his speeches with appeals to the many over the few and revealing a personal vision of a Parliament that serves the people, instead of the other way around. But it wasn’t until recently that Poilievre combined the battle against wokeism with the case for common sense policies for common people, and by doing so, Poilievre takes his online culture war credibility and gives it mainstream, in-real-life appeal.

Poilievre’s common-sense frame does what the left has done so effectively over the last decade—it wrenches open the Overton window on his side of the ideological spectrum. By asserting that his views, while substantive and principled, are common sense, he allies himself with mainstream public opinion. And as the Liberals overplay their progressive hand, hoping no one will notice their experimental policies are failing, his mainstream language resonates. The reason regular people feel so befuddled by wokeism, the reason we all nod our heads when Poilievre asks “Are you serious?” is because, to use a common expression, people don’t like to be urinated on and then told it’s raining. Until recently, dominant voices in the media and the halls of power have successfully made common views out to be radical and their own views out to be reasonable.

Within this frame, conservatives seem like reactionaries. But as liberal elites have become more captured by woke ideology, their values have increasingly become inaccessible to everyday Canadians. By championing bourgeois virtues, speaking to the common people, and appealing to common sense, Poilievre is rejecting that frame and putting himself and his party smack dab in the regular, boring, mainstream centre of Canadian public opinion. And that’s a winning strategy.