You almost have to feel sorry for David Johnston. After a lifetime of esteemed public service and achievement, which includes long stints at the head of key post-secondary institutions and a term as governor general, he’s now being dragged through the filthiest partisan mud for his role as Canada’s “special rapporteur” on foreign interference in our democracy. Nobody ever said public service was supposed to be easy, but it definitely shouldn’t be this hard.

His first report identifies some very real weaknesses in the way security intelligence is communicated (or not) within the federal government. It stress-tests some of the accusations that have been made about foreign interference in our elections, including the one against former Liberal MP Han Dong. And it ultimately concludes that a public inquiry, which had been the path Johnston says he thought he would recommend taking, would only frustrate those looking for more transparency.

“A ‘public inquiry’ would necessarily be done in private and largely replicate the process I have undergone,” Johnston wrote. If the most sensitive information was made public, after all, “foreign adversaries would readily discern sources and methods from this information. It could endanger people. It can neither be made public in its current form nor usefully be aggregated to a level that could be made public,” he went on to say.

For his part, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre was predictably petulant. He scheduled a press conference before the report was even released to discuss Justin Trudeau’s “coverup of Beijing's interference” and referred to Johnston as the prime minister’s “ski buddy.”

Worse, perhaps, is his continued refusal (along with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet) to learn more about what Johnston found, some of which is contained in a cache of classified documents. That’s because it would expose them to top-secret intelligence, the contents of which they wouldn’t be able to share with Canadians due to the obvious national security issues. “As for any proposals he may have to silence me,” Poilievre said, “the answer is no — I will not be silenced.”

If only.

The pundit class, with a few notable exceptions, struck a similar tone. Over at The Line, which has run at least four critiques of Johnston’s first report, conservative commentator Mitch Heimpel described Johnston as “a fervent defender of his advantaged status quo” and “another among the thoroughly compromised set of politicians, senior civil servants and academics who have, over the decades when it comes to foreign policy regarding China, taken the money and run.”

A big part of the disconnect here is because Johnston is delivering a serious response at a fundamentally unserious time. When the leader of the official Opposition communicates primarily through memes, insults and YouTube videos, getting him to sit down and have a serious discussion about Canada’s strategic security interests is about as likely as your cat filing your income taxes.

His work also assumes a spirit of mutual self-interest and common decency, both on the part of our elected officials and the people charged with covering them, that simply doesn’t exist anymore. In fairness, maybe it hasn’t existed for a while. But it was far more common in the world that Johnston comes from than the one he’s in right now.

David Johnston delivered a serious and sober-minded report on foreign interference in Canada's democracy, one that almost immediately fell on deaf ears. Now, the government's in an even deeper hole — one it keeps digging for itself.

Finally, it betrays a bit of naïveté on Johnston’s part. As he wrote in his report, “This matter is too important for anyone aspiring to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance on these matters. While political parties may disagree about policy and priorities, they should do so from a common understanding of the true facts, not as speculated or hypothesized from media reports based on leaks of partial information.”

But that presumes there aren’t people in politics who are willing to trade ignorance for partisan advantage, or that they put the common welfare of the country above their ability to determine it. Johnston’s been around the block enough times to know that isn’t the case, but he still seems to be operating on the assumption that it is.

To be clear, this isn’t his fault. The blame here falls primarily on the prime minister and his staff, who had to know that Poilievre and his team would draw attention to Johnston’s links to the Trudeau Foundation and the Trudeau family. It reveals one of two things, neither of which are good: either a crippling blindness to the optics of his appointment or a deep cynicism about their broader utility — and willingness to throw a decorated public servant to the digital wolves in order to achieve it.

Johnston tried to address this in his report, detailing his limited interactions with the prime minister and the Trudeau Foundation over the years. He even stress-tested it with Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice who was appointed to the bench by Brian Mulroney. “I have no doubt whatsoever that I had any conflict of interest and no doubt at all, speaking for myself, about my impartiality,” Johnston said.

I have no doubt about his lack of doubt, either. But we live in a world now where the official Opposition seems determined to sow doubt about our democratic institutions, from the courts to the results of our elections. Case in point: Poilievre simply dismissed Iacobucci as “someone who is part of the Trudeau Foundation” (notice the tense confusion here) because he was a mentor for the organization back in 2006.

There are a few lessons here, in case anyone in Ottawa wants to learn them. First, the days of career public servants being accorded respect for their work is long over. As in Donald Trump’s America, those who dedicate their lives to public service are more likely to attract resentment — unless, of course, they’re running for public office as a conservative. As Johnston said about the criticism of his connections to the Trudeau family, “This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions.”

Of course, that’s a feature rather than a bug for many of the people launching the accusations. Those of us who care about public institutions — including, I presume, the current Liberal government — need to be more careful with how we steward their finite supply of public trust and confidence. Spending it to win the day, an issue or even an election might seem appealing in the short term. In the longer run, though, it leaves us all bankrupt.

Finally, for all the talk about Conservatives or Liberals winning and losing, we need to understand that countries like China and Russia are playing a different — and longer — game here. Having Canadians tear each other apart, and damage our public institutions in the process, is exactly what they want. It’s certainly more valuable to them than a few seats in an election they might try to influence.

If there’s a way out of this mess, it’ll be through the public hearings Johnston suggested — and the Trudeau government subsequently endorsed. As the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt wrote, “The hearings are ultimately a chance to put Johnston’s work where it belongs — in the realm of public trust, before the public, out in the open. It’s public trust in democracy that is at issue here, not whether political parties can get along or even whether there’s a breakdown in communication between government and the national-security system.”

She’s right. Johnston’s report may have rejected some of the more salacious allegations about foreign interference that have been leaked by security personnel, but it risks missing the forest for the trees. What’s at stake now is the perception of an injustice, one that’s being amplified by Conservative politicians and pundits. In an age where trust in institutions and democracy is being actively and deliberately eroded, we need to clear the air before it does more lasting damage. And David Johnston, for all of his many qualifications and achievements, was never going to be the person to do that.

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I totally agree. The more Russia and China can sow discord in our country and have us fighting with each other, the further their agenda to destroy public trust in our democracy (and erode our democracy) advances. Wake up Canadians! Shame on you Pierre Poilievre!

I had trouble finishing this....because for me, the situation doesn't call for some kind of reboot....dictated by the fact we're living in a 'post truth world'. THERE IS NO POST TRUTH REALITY.....that's all a creation of the people who want to sow distrust of our democracy....and create a situation where everyone fears everyone else....and only the most violent have access to the purity of absolute conviction.

Maybe I'm alone in this.......but I've understood the China interference story was being mass produced on the basis of leaks from an unconfirmed source in CISIS....I recognized very quickly that the accusations were so generalized as to be meaningless. When I heard that some of the politicians targeted didn't know they'd been targeted and were angry about not being informed...the story got even more flimsey.

Still the furor that didn't seem to go away.....those little dust devils spun by conservatives around the country, kept us bored on the National, and tempted to change the channel.

What Johnston has provided is a sober look at the EVIDENCE. Remember that National Post suporters...EVIDENCE??? That old world requirement before you hang someone, a requirement Max is suggesting has gone the way of the dodo bird.........

So now, we have to fund a public inquiry where PP can emote....and we learn the same non-information in a more public way???? What hasn't been public about this entire dust up??

Perhaps what we need is an educated public, a courageous public, a common sense public.... a public more interested in what we are going to do to protect our cities from the raging wild fires here and to come. China is a threat??? The loss of our fire and international clear cut logging is the threat.

MORE OF US NEED TO CHANGE THE CHANNEL....and demand real discussion of the solutions we need to secure a livable future. PP will be left in the dust, once we dig into those issues.

Bravo Mary! Well said, and EXACTLY what so many of us older people think as we watch the bullying brat Poilievre "act out;" to all of us HE is the threat to democracy who's getting away with it by hiding in plain sight WITHIN the very institutions he's undermining. Conservatives are the enemy within, period. ANYONE who chooses to affiliate themselves with the cons now, under the circumstances we all find ourselves in, is culpable. Period.
Mary expresses our IMMENSE frustration in caps when she says "there is no post-truth reality," reminds me of the words in an Annie Lennox song, "there's a lifestyle of painted lips that doesn't exist." You can tell how salient truth is in all this when you hear Johnston employ YET another desperate phrase like "TRUE FACTS" when the word "fact" alone used to suffice.
It's like what just happened in the States with them viewing terrorism as external, firing up "Homeland Security" with their usual excessive patriotic fervour, only to find domestic terrorism as the real problem.
Max is worried about squandering the limited amount of public trust left by eschewing the public inquiry but I agree with the Liberals in this case that standing their ground is actual leadership because that ground is institutional, solid, and exemplary around the world. And one of the main reasons for that is because the essence of democracy is literally LIBERAL, i.e. open to tweaking or changing something when EVIDENCE shows the need, which, again, is why we never use the phrase "conservative democracy."
And as far as the usual gamesmanship goes with the guys, Trudeau has called the con bluff again with the security clearance offer, leaving him and Jagmeet on top. Rosemary Barton and all of her ilk, like the right-wing journalists on "The Line," are like rabid wolves at every turn, goading Jagmeet to join them in sticking it to Trudeau, but he won't. And the fact that he's the only "leader" open-minded enough to consider even consider changing his mind speaks volumes, even if he still sticks to his preference on the public inquiry.
The fact that Johnstone prefaced his remarks by saying that he thought that's where he'd end up as well was entirely believable, as was he himself, and it didn't hurt that Harper, the creepy, spectral wizard of the Convoy/Reform Party called Johnstone "the best of Canada" or somesuch when he appointed him. Not sure how Max thinks the Liberals blundered here....
The principle media have also been flushed out on this, their conservative endorsements/affinities raising their ugly head for everyone to see. A real misstep on their part to draw so much attention to themselves; it kind of blows what has been a good cover, that hiding in plain sight thing.

Bingo! Well said!

No surprise Pierre Poilievre and is anti-Trudeau groupies are there to ensure the Russians and China are successful in spreading propaganda. When it comes to Pierre Poilievre the snake oil salesman, his only interest in sowing more discord in hopes to get elected, since doing it honestly with policies and pledges are beneath him. We know many anti-Trudeau social media accounts are funded by conservatives or far-right groups encouraged to further spread discord on social media.

Every time I see a Free-Dumber or clowns with the F**k Trudeau flags, just reveals how brain washed these people are conspiracy theories and propaganda. What I don't understand at times, when confronted as to what freedoms they are missing, you get nothing but crickets. When you ask about Trudeau, all they repeat is conspiracy nonsense and disinformation they read on social media. These people are a lost cause and can't be reasoned with, some are just plain extremists if not cults.

Agreed. Now if we could just get that "cult" label applied where it rightly fits. Because no one likes cults, right?
So how about we go for the gusto and go to the source, which is religion?
All religions fit the definition of a cult.

Pardon me: saying it doesn't make it so. And somewhere within our constitutional rights is the freedom to practise our respective relligions.
And I doubt very much that the more or less "religious" people of Alberta would be swayed by calling them cult members.

For sure "saying doesn't make it so" but believers are actually the ones "saying" it, i.e. making an extraordinary claim with zero evidence, let alone the "extraordinary" evidence required.
And generally, the farther right the right wing goes the more religion becomes front and centre; it's almost always the reason for using the word "extreme."

No sure I would agree all religions are a cult, some certainly appear to be, if they are pushing their beliefs down others' throats or go to war over it. If your religion believes in X, Y and Z, that is fine and you are entitled to believe whatever. But religion crosses a boundary when they start to push their beliefs on elected officials and others to shape others or the country because of their beliefs.

I believe religon is the root of all evil, or that God is just an imaginary friend religious people have, but I am not asking government or other people to change things to fit my beliefs. Religion has a ZERO place in government or politics at all levels.

If you believe in religon, fine, just don't preach or go to war because others don't believe or want to follow your beliefs.

I have a few problems with points raised in the article.
We are told (and most of us believe) what "the Chinese and the Russians want."
It is not the job of the public (or even the media) to ensure "trust in our institutions." That is the job of the institutions, themselves.
In fact, it is the media's job to report to the public what the government and our other institutions are doing, that isn't clear from the mouths of our elected representatives, and from the performance(s) of the said institutions.
I think the public has been given every real reason to question the "trust" they ordinarily have in their institutions.
Politicians, even after inquiries, and findings of wrongdoing, stand bald-facedly in front of us, and tell us they "respect" the findings (of conflicts of interest, of interference in the judiciary), but they "did nothing wrong." That is not "respecting the findings." That is something else.
That has nothing to do with what the Chinese or Russians want, or for that matter what Tanganyika or the Martians want.
Had any of the individuals/officers/politicians simply done their jobs in accordance with law, without ;lying, trying to keep things secret that we had a right to know about, or making up stories because they wanted us to behave in a certain way -- and then not having the grace to explain themselves when caught out, much less apologize.
We have provincial governments refusing to obey the law, with the approval (and assistance) of the federal government, not that the Conservatives wouldn't do worse -- based on their prior track record.
We have a police force that does not obey the law, including court rulings.
Same with provincial governments, at least some of which interfere in municipal governments' affairs.
We have a federal government that ignores court rulings. We have provincial governments that do the same.
We have lower courts that ignore SCC rulings.
We have governments, both provincial and federal, that claim they are doing one thing, while secretly doing another, and which "disappear" communications required to be maintained, remove bodies or processes that could hold them to account, and repeatedly lie to the public.
That is not the problem of the public to fix. Neither is it the job of media to ignore.

US citizens had their reasons for electing Trump ... mainly that the federal government there put a whole lot of people in very bad economic circumstances, and pretended the problem would just go away or that it didn't have to be worried about: after all, "those people" wouldn't likely show up in DC with Bux in their pockets.
Whether or not anyone's noticed, at any given time, regions are alternately burning, flooded, or hit by tornados and/or hurricanes.
All this while politicians stand on their "rights" and repeatedly attempt to hoodwink the populace, while doing nothing to solve the problem(s).
That is what gives the likes of Mme. Danielle wind in her sails, despite her unsuitability to hold elected office.
It's too late to undo the effects of half a century of misguided gambits of our education systems. that have left us with far too many illiterate or semi-literate citizens, who can't discern how to distinguish between real and fake news, or even what is in their own best interests.
That is not the job of the general public to rectify -- although the media was asleep at the switch as the situation unfolded.
The electorate is hog-tied when it comes to holding their representatives to account, because there is no mechanism for enforcing accountability.

Perhaps the author of this opinion piece wasn't aware that the federal government refused to send a Chinese diplomat packing, when it came to light that his government had seeded Chinese-language newspapers with encouragement to vote for particular candidates, and not others, i.e., interfering in our elections. We were told that couldn't happen, because then China would kick out *our* diplomat -- and wreak vengeance on Canadian citizens in China, like they did with the two Michaels ... and we are supposed to believe that's OK.
We already "looked the other way" and allowed a Chinese military official access to a "top security" lab ... and while he and his co-worker were marched out of the building, very little was made of the fact that our own institutions had not vetted either the individuals in question, or the substance of the research they were doing (which turned out to have been contrary to our law.
We've been forced to put up with foreign interference in our mainstream media (false advertising by CAPP, an organization whose members are largely foreign corporations) because there is no watchdog, and no institution to hold them to account.
And it goes on, and on, and on.
Some of us might still remember Cambridge Analytica, and its BC "Branch Office" ... when the federal Liberal party was stated in media to be or at that time, have been one of its clients.
Some of us are aware that many politicians lie to us, and that some of them lie pretty much every time their mouths open. Though not necessarily when a fly enters said aperture.
Many of us know full well, for example, that almost everything that comes out of Doug Ford's mouth falls neatly into the category, "All lies, all the time."

So I am not about to apologize for all the ways in which our democracy does not serve us, the ways in which we are *not* a nation that holds to the rule of law, and the ways in which our politicians repeatedly fail us, leaving us virtually no recourse.

I would submit that the way to deal with all of the above is to have real transparency, and real accountability, and not to rely on those who profit from the lies and subterfuge to change their ways.

Have you not noticed that the side using the words "transparency" and "accountability" most often is also by far and away the LEAST transparent and/or accountable? Not to mention being the ones who very much INITIATED and then stoked all this "deterioration of discourse" that has eroded the public trust in government like never before? The newly radicalized right wing are the sole agents of this wholly negative change.