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Jen Gerson: Okay, but I don't trust you
The facts before me don't warrant any extraordinary leave from my ordinary degree of cynicism.
By: Jen Gerson
Far be it from me to steal the thunder of my fellow editor, Matt Gurney, who did yeoman's work combing through the Johnston report shortly after it came out on Tuesday. I think he did some of the most able and credible snap analysis of any Canadian pundit, and was able to identify what ought to be the key reflections from the report.
As for me, I had a hard time justifying an in-depth examination of the report itself, for two major reasons. Yes, Gurney did it first and better. But also because that necessary work just struck me as profoundly futile.
I could note that, for all his eminence, David Johnston did not conduct a credible investigation into Chinese foreign interference, and that the entire exercise comes off as a painfully credulous whitewash that depended far too heavily on the word of the same people whose very competence and judgement are facing scrutiny.
Anyone who reads former CPC leader Erin O'Toole's explanation of how Johnston handled him or his party's concerns cannot then take the report seriously. By the time Johnston met with O'Toole to consider the dossier and evidence presented, his report had already been sent out for French translation. This is not behaviour indicative of someone who is taking his brief as an independent rapporteur seriously.
The report itself dedicates an entire section to media analysis in an attempt to discredit Global News and the Globe and Mail based on classified documents Johnston has seen, but cannot share. That alone is indicative of the true intent of this report; why did Johnston feel the need to trash the media, rather than simply share the findings of his oh-so-thorough investigations, and allow people to come to their own conclusions? Heck, I’m not even ruling out the possibility that some of my media peers have messed up the reporting — indeed, it would be normal for investigative teams to make some mistakes given the nature and limitations of the sources.
However, framing the report this way makes it seem as if the entire process has been jerry-rigged for such a result: the government hiding behind a reliable but well-credentialed member of their class to review classified documents for the sole purpose of undermining damaging media.
That's to say nothing of the obvious conflict of interest involved in appointing Johnston — a family associate of the prime minister — to the role of heading this investigation in the first place. Anyone who deserved the deference to judgement that he subsequently demanded would have been smart enough to realize he was not the correct individual for the job in the first place.
To top this all off, Johnston presented his painfully flawed report with the characteristically patronizing admonishment to the media and the Canadian public to rally around the credibility excited by his apparent eminence, to trust him and his government.
Well, I don't. I don't trust these people.
There is nothing in evidence here that convinces me that any of them are acting appropriately, competently or in good faith.
In a democratic society, authority does not demand trust, it earns it. The facts before me don't warrant any extraordinary leave from my ordinary degree of cynicism. To put it another way, I don't perfectly trust my own husband — and I like him. (That's a joke, honey.)
But of course, everyone reading this already agrees with me. Which brings me to the second problem: futility.
Because if you're allied with the Conservative camp, you're already outraged; if you are sympathetic to the NDP, equally so — but not so much as to challenge the Liberals' hold on power. And if you're a member of the third of the electorate that supports the Liberals, you're long-since convinced that there is no story here, that the media is out to get you and that all of the anger and opposition around Chinese foreign interference is nothing more than disingenuous partisan bluster.
And as long as you believe that — and as long as enough of you in key ridings in the 905 continue to believe that — the Liberals will maintain their tenuous hold on power and none of this will matter. The government will be able to get away with any egregious bullshit it wants and accountability on any file will be impossible. And the Liberals know it. Which is why they’re, even now, reportedly considering welcoming Han Dong back into the Liberal caucus and insinuating that the leaks are all motivated by malice.
So what's the point? Honestly. Why bother?
As I've written in columns previously, so much of the Liberals' response on controversial files has become extraordinarily daft. Take this case in point: Trudeau et al have botched their response to reports of Chinese interference at every single turn in ways that were both strategically short-sighted, and also utterly unnecessary. At every juncture, they made things worse.
The Johnston appointment and report is only the latest instance of this. The smartest move for the Liberals would have been to behave in ways that an innocent government would be expected to behave — to call a public inquiry into the matter of foreign interference, to take the issue seriously, to commit to improvements in the system to ensure foreign actors do not have undue sway over our electoral process and the like.
Instead, what we've been given is a half-baked, whitewash report by a conflicted “special rapporteur” that does absolutely zilch to restore trust in public institutions, kill the story, or convince members of our intelligence community that the government will take this issue seriously. Thus, the only obvious response for the leakers of this information is to leak harder.
The Liberals have squandered political capital to create a report that gives them superficial political cover to declare themselves vindicated in the short term. The price for this is some unknowable number of long-term consequences for both them, and for the country at large.
(And, yes, I'm aware that Johnston advised against an inquiry on the grounds that much of the material is classified. This is shoddy reasoning. As we saw with POEC, it’s entirely possible to run a credible public inquiry with a truly independent source deciding what information ought to be released to the public. Especially when that sources errs on the side of “quite a lot.” Frankly, so much of this classified information has been so dissected and rebutted in the media that they are effectively if not actually within the public domain. Further, there's no version of "national security" that ought to preserve secrecy over documents and information that preserve nothing more than the interests and expedience of the government in power.)
Regardless of one's partisan leanings, it ought to be obvious at this point that our government isn't running as well as it must, particularly in areas of national security. Communication between departments is dismal; ministers lack clearance to access crucial email data; information is stuffed into binders that no one tracks, ensuring there is no way to be assured that crucial information is making its way to necessary leaders. It's a disaster.
No ally — or enemy — will read Johnston's report and conclude anything good about the state of Canadian state capacity or decision making.
Even if I were a Liberal partisan I would imagine that, perhaps this is something it behooves us all to fix. But if I'm being honest, I don't have a lot of hope. Or trust.
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