NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says that despite special rapporteur David Johnston’s personal credibility, the appearance of bias in favour of the Liberal government is undermining the very work that he’s trying to accomplish.
“I believe he’s a person that is very credible and has worked for the country in a way that is really honourable,” Singh said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live Sunday.
“The problem we’re up against, though, is the work he’s supposed to do is restore confidence in our electoral system, and the appearance of bias is so strong now that he can no longer do that work. The trust necessary is eroded because of the appearance of bias,” Singh told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.
Singh likened the situation to public trust in the justice system, which is sustained in part by a level of transparency and attention to process. He emphasized that he was only talking about the “appearance” of bias.
Johnston has been under fire from opposition parties since he was tasked by the prime minister to look into allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections by China. He delivered his first report on the issue late last month and recommended against a public inquiry.
The NDP leader detailed his opposition to Johnston’s continued role days after the House of Commons passed a motion proposed by his party calling on Johnston to resign. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood by the former governor general, saying Friday that he looked forward to the public hearings on foreign interference Johnston will be conducting this year.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has condemned Johnston’s selection as special rapporteur, given ties between Johnston and Trudeau going back to the prime minister’s childhood.
“All the parties in the House of Commons should come together and agree on someone who is not partisan, not connected to any party leader and who has a track record of objectivity, preferably as a judge,” Poilievre said Friday.
Johnston himself refused this week to step down.
“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes the government. I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed,” he said in a media statement.
While Poilievre has been harsh in his critique of the government’s handling of the foreign interference issue so far, including calling Johnston’s role a “fake job,” Singh has walked a line between opposition and co-operation. Both parties, though, have called for a public inquiry, rather than Johnston’s hearings.
Poilievre has refused to be cleared to see the confidential portion of Johnston’s first report, but Singh says he would like to view the documents.
He told Barton that the exact timeline for that was still not clear, adding he was awaiting written guarantees — he said he had received verbal assurances — that he would still be able to opine on the government’s response to the issue.
“I want to be able to have the same latitude that Mr. Johnston had, and it’s already been assured that that will be the case,” Singh said.
Given the fact the NDP is currently supporting the Liberal government in a confidence-and-supply agreement, Singh theoretically has the power to bring down the government and force an election over the foreign interference issue.
But he has said he won’t force voters to the polls before confidence is restored.
“If the problem is we’re worried about election interference, having an election is not going to solve the problem,” he told Barton on Sunday, noting that he worried the controversy would only increase voter apathy and depress turnout.
In a separate interview Sunday, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair (who served as public safety minister between the 2019 and 2021 elections) said he remained supportive of Johnston.
“The job that needs to be done requires someone of a well-known reputation for service to the country, for integrity and for trustworthiness. And I don’t know any Canadian who would exceed his reputation for being an incredibly trustworthy and civic-minded Canadian,” Blair said.
Blair said that partisan attacks against Johnston had proved a distraction for his work.
“I think our responsibility is to provide reassurance to Canadians that this will be done in a way that they can trust and that the outcome will help Canada become more resilient,” he said, adding that Johnston is “exceptionally able” to do that.