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Liberals voice support for embattled rapporteur Johnston, as MPs debate asking him to step down

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OTTAWA –


Federal Liberals say they continue to have confidence in David Johnston’s work as foreign interference special rapporteur, despite opposition MPs calling for him to step down after recommending against a public inquiry.


“Mr. Johnston is a person who has served his country in an extraordinary way over the years… He’s someone who has shown his commitment to this country and the work he’s done on this report is exceptional,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in French on his way in to question period on Tuesday.


“Mr. Johnston was very clear in his well-founded recommendation: it’s not a public inquiry that’s needed in this situation, it’s public hearings, community meetings with Canadians over the course of the summer, that will address people’s concerns,” Trudeau continued.

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Asked Tuesday if he thought that Johnston was still best person to hold public hearings, a next step in his job that Johnston appears to have decided on unilaterally, Government House Leader Mark Holland said he does not have any questions about the former governor general’s credibility.


“He’s somebody who served this country with distinction for his entire life, and I think frankly it’s a little disappointing the way in which he is being personally attacked,” Holland told reporters. “I do believe Canadians have confidence in Mr. Johnston.”


While suggesting the other parties need to set aside their “differences” to tackle the issue of foreign meddling in Canadian democracy, Holland said the way the opposition parties are handling the allegations of Chinese interference have become “unhelpful.”


“This is something that is a lot bigger and a lot more important than… partisan politics,” he said.


The governing Liberals continue to be challenged by the opposition over what all sides agree is the real threat of foreign interference. The latest point of contention is Trudeau’s decision to stand by Johnston, despite other parties’ concerns over his impartiality given his past personal and professional ties to the prime minister’s family and a foundation baring the Trudeau name.


The latest push has come in the form of an NDP opposition day motion calling for Johnston to “step aside” from the special rapporteur role Trudeau tapped him to take on months ago as part of a suite of measures meant to assuage Canadians’ concerns about allegations of foreign meddling by China in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

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On Tuesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that while he’s been careful to not attack Johnston personally in the way other opposition leaders have, he’s concerned that the appearance of his bias “undermines the work that he can do.”


“So at this point, we are asking for Mr. Johnston to be removed,” Singh said, speaking to reporters as debate kicked off in the House of Commons on his party’s proposal, seeing other Liberals come to Johnston’s defence in the face of further questioning.


A week ago, Johnston recommended against a public inquiry, citing the inability to have a true and confidence-affirming public airing of the facts due to the sensitive nature of the intelligence central to the issue. Though, despite writing at length about the basis underpinning this decision, and an attempt to clear the air himself last week about his objectivity, Johnston continues to come under fire.


“Even though there are 40 million Canadians, apparently they can’t seem to find someone from outside the Trudeau Foundation to investigate on this,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in French in the House Tuesday. “The prime minister is trying to delay such an inquiry, although it is inevitable because either he will launch one, or when I win the next election, I will launch one.”


“If the New Democrats are serious about forcing a public inquiry, then they should say to the prime minister: either you start a public inquiry or the NDP will put an end to their coalition,” Poilievre said.


TARGETED MPS SPEAK OUT


Leading off Tuesday’s debate in the House was the motion’s sponsor, NDP MP Jenny Kwan, who was recently informed by CSIS she is among the Canadian MPs being targeted by China.

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“I must say that it is with sadness that I stand here today, and where the NDP has to put forward this motion. The situation around foreign interference is real… And it’s impacting all of us. It is damaging to our democratic system. It is threatening to some Canadians who are very active in their fight for basic human rights and democracy,” Kwan said.


“Yet despite all of this, the government does not see the importance of why right at the outset, in looking into these matters, that there should have been a public inquiry. Instead, the prime minister decided himself that the appropriate path forward was to appoint a special rapporteur. Now here we are, the special rapporteur has tabled a report and there are issues, lots of issues, with the report and with the entire process.”


During the debate, former Conservative leader and outgoing MP Erin O’Toole rose on a question of privilege similar to the one raised by his colleague Michael Chong, alleging that his rights have been breached as an MP due to what he said was a range of attempts — past and present — from China to interfere in his work.


“The threats identified against me by CSIS did not relate to one single event, or one single accredited diplomat. Rather, the numerous threats identified to me provide proof of an ongoing campaign of foreign interference intended to disrupt my work as a member, but also to critically disrupt my work as leader of a large parliamentary caucus in a minority parliament,” O’Toole said.


“In fact, CSIS advised me that I will remain a target of Beijing’s influence operations long after I leave this House this summer.”


Should the House of Commons Speaker rule that his case reaches the threshold for a breach of his parliamentary privilege, it could prompt an additional House debate and vote for his specific experience to be studied by MPs.


WHAT ARE THE NDP CALLING FOR?


Tuesday’s NDP opposition motion goes beyond calling for Johnston to remove himself from the role as rapporteur given the “serious questions” raised about Johnston’s mandate, the past political donations from the council he retained to support his work, and his conclusions.

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It also once again calls on the federal government to “urgently establish” a public inquiry. And, while as non-binding as past motions making this call, this time the NDP are suggesting specific parameters around what the inquiry would look like, from the scope spanning all foreign states, to the timeline for completion. 


Once again, the New Democrats want the person chosen to head this probe to be selected with unanimous backing from all recognized parties in the House. The vote on this motion won’t happen Tuesday, but pending it being amended, is likely to pass.


As for whether the federal government is prepared to heed the call to can Johnston, should a majority of MPs implore the Liberals to, neither Trudeau, Holland nor Chief Government Whip Steven MacKinnon would say.


Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said he’ll vote in favour of the motion, firstly because he still believes a public inquiry is needed. But, he added, because he thinks Trudeau needs to place the issue of foreign interference in the hands of someone truly independent so he can focus on other pressing matters such as inflation, health care, and the ongoing wildfires.


The motion, if passed as drafted, also seeks to have the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) which has led the parliamentary study into foreign election interference, report to the House with a recommendation on who could lead this inquiry and what the terms of reference should be.


Work at PROC continued Tuesday, with MPs hearing from former senior federal security officials who also disagree with Johnston’s decision to not hold a public inquiry.


“I do not want the onus falling to the opposition to push for a vote to have a public inquiry. But instead, I wish to see the government and more particularly and respectfully, the prime minister reconsider the decision not to have a public inquiry,” said former executive manager at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Dan Stanton.


“We do have precedents for public inquiries on national security matters… Where sensitive reporting and witness testimony were reviewed in-camera. The same could be done with a public inquiry on foreign interference, where the Attorney General of Canada can request the commissioner to review sensitive information privately,” Stanton said.


With files from CTV News’ Spencer Van Dyk 

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