Matt Gurney: The Johnston report is one of the most depressing things I've ever read
Most of the commentary over the special rapporteur’s report is going to miss the plain, simple truth he reveals: we are just totally, epically boned
By: Matt Gurney
Former governor-general and current special rapporteur David Johnston released his first report into Chinese electoral interference and the related, uh, kerfuffle, on Tuesday. Johnston has deemed a full public inquiry unnecessary; as so much of the relevant material would need to remain classified, Johnston said, a full public inquiry would be neither full nor public. Johnston has asked Parliament's national security committees to review his findings and state if they disagree. Johnston agrees electoral interference is real, agrees that broken processes have hobbled our ability to combat it, and notes that he found no evidence of the government intentionally ignoring warnings and reports. Johnston also found that some of the media reporting on the issue relied on limited information and, absent context, was not accurate.
Johnston is a serious guy, and I take what he says seriously. I've read his report. It's worth considering, and much of it seems plausible. But it's no exoneration of the Trudeau government. Indeed, in The Line's latest podcast, I commented to my colleague Jen Gerson that the Trudeau government has a major problem on this file. Johnston's report speaks to it.
We were talking about a Globe and Mail report last week that reported, citing a national security source, that then-public safety minister Bill Blair had delayed for months before signing off on a CSIS request for a warrant authorizing surveillance of Michael Chan, a politician in the Greater Toronto Area with deep links to the Chinese government. Chan, though in municipal politics now, was a long-serving member of the McGuinty and Wynne Liberal provincial governments. While one could certainly infer, as the Globe's national security source reportedly had, that Blair was dragging his feet to help out a fellow Liberal, I told my valued fellow Line editor that it's not at all hard to imagine that Blair actually took the issue seriously, as did everyone else around him, and the month's-long delay was just a reflection on a government that is bloated, overcentralized and sclerotic. Deferring key decisions months or even years isn’t exactly out of character for these guys, right? An inexplicable and unhelpful delay in the Trudeau cabinet is no smoking gun, alas.
On this and other matters, what the Liberals have offered as their defences are actually just different kinds of confessions. "We're too incompetent to be malicious" is about where their own version of events is landing, and the hell of it is, it may well be true.
There's a version of this story in which every Canadian involved is trying to do the right thing. The leaker(s), the reporters covering the story, the prime minister and his staff, our security officials. If you're feeling particularly generous, you can sketch out a broad outline of this whole affair where everyone is basically a different kind of victim of a broken system. I don't think that's exactly what's happening here, for reasons I'll get into, but it's possible. That would also be just another kind of confession, wouldn't it?
In watching Johnston's, uh, interesting press conference, and reading through his report once it was online, I came away thinking about a column I wrote here just a few months ago, about what the Public Order Emergency Commission revealed about the federal response to the convoy in Ottawa last year. Even if you are someone who wants to give the maximum benefit of the doubt to the federal government (I'm not that person, but even if), what you're left with is simply the inescapable conclusion that they aren't good at their jobs and that no one is holding them accountable. This was a major takeaway from the POEC findings — in a moment of genuine crisis and emergency, quite literally on their front steps, the Trudeau government was hobbled by institutions and processes that were broken, deficient or, at the very least, far, far too slow. Key staff didn't know basic things about their jobs. Key agencies weren't talking to each other, and didn't even seem to realize they ought to be. Staffers and ministers were getting their updates from Twitter and the articles I was writing.
Don’t get me wrong, folks. I have a strong “Read Gurney” bias. But not, like, you know, as a substitute for internal government memos and briefings.
One of Justice Rouleau's most staggering conclusions in the POEC report is that what gave the convoyers the advantage — they held the capital for three weeks, recall — was that many of them had a professional background that involved at least some real-world experience in logistics and event planning and management. The federal government, in contrast, had none of that. As I wrote in my column then, "If your job requires you to manage a bunch of projects at the same time and coordinate different teams, especially if you mix in a bit of expertise in event planning and fleet operations, you are apparently probably capable of overthrowing the Canadian state."
Though Johnston was fairly polite and understated in making his case, this is broadly the version of things he is sketching out for us. Trudeau isn't compromised or corrupt, he's just atop a government that's so borked that the prime minister and his government couldn't have done any better. The machine is just too broken.
I don't buy that pass for Trudeau, entirely, and I'll tell why, but first, let's actually go through Johnston's report and look at some examples of what I mean. I'll put chunks of Johnston's report (lightly edited, when necessary) in block quotes, and put my own remarks underneath. And a warning, dear reader. Whatever your partisan affiliation, you might wanna pour yourself a stiff drink. This is going to be painful.