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Mitch Heimpel: David Johnston is Canada's newest guilty man
In the end, the special rapporteur proved himself to be exactly what his critics argued he always was.
By: Mitch Heimpel
In the end, David Johnston proved himself to be exactly what his critics argued he always was.
A fervent defender of his advantaged status quo. Another among the thoroughly compromised set of politicians, senior civil servants and academics who have, over the decades when it comes to Canadian foreign policy regarding China, taken the money and run. The idea that he was ever going to be anything else was a figment of our own collective fantasy.
We believed we were a serious country. David Johnston has laughed in our faces at the very thought.
The families of members of Parliament have been targeted for possible “sanctions”? No matter.
Our elections are the subject of coordinated foreign intelligence operations? Well, sure. But what is democracy really?
Really, you see, Johnston told us — without ever being quite so direct about it, because people of Johnston's polite air are rarely so crass — the media was your problem. They published things without the appropriate "context."
Choosing Johnston was always a bit grubby. It was meant to politically neuter Conservatives because, after all, Stephen Harper appointed him to be the governor general. How could he possibly be compromised? Yes, he's known the prime minister whose government he was investigating since Justin Trudeau was a small child. And, yes, as a university president, he was long an advocate for more open relations with China. And, yes, he involved with the Trudeau Foundation, which has found itself at the heart of the question of foreign interference coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party, but ...
No, there is no “but.”
There is no other democracy which would have successfully conducted an elaborate farce of this magnitude to tell its citizens what it is painfully obvious that it wanted to tell them all along: You have no right to know.
Again, with respect to the polite airs of the former governor-general and the testy bits of ego he displayed on Tuesday as he spent close to five minutes explaining his "so-called friendship" with the prime minister, his reasoning for not calling a public inquiry was a line that has been repeated in a kind of Laurentian responsorial for months. It would be harder to do things in public with classified information.
Except that's the whole point.
When you fail in a democracy, when a system fails in a democracy — as thoroughly and as profoundly as political accountability for our intelligence networks failed here — you lose the right to argue for secrecy. You cannot maintain trust in public institutions — and especially elections — with a secretive process. And, so, you get a public process, and the disgraces and the failures are aired in a public way, both because the transparency is important but also because knowing that your failures will be public is a disincentive from making the same mistakes again.
We were never going to get a public inquiry on this topic. For the same reason that our new "Indo-Pacific" strategy, wasn't really a new strategy. Our foreign policy now at least acknowledges that we live on the same planet as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. It also goes to pains to underscore how unhappy it is about that fact. Our government's policy on China is that everyone in charge of policy that deals with China would like the public to stop talking about China.
We will, in service of that particular end, substitute an eternity of process in place of policy. We will line up an endless amount of kindly old grandfathers to tell us everything is fine. We will announce strategic review after strategic review to do the most basic of things that other countries do on a regular basis. The list is long and illustrious of the sheer number of rakes this government has stepped on when it comes to China. Everything from its diplomatic appointments, to military training exercises, the extended delay in handling Huawei's involvement in the 5G network, to the events at the National Microbiology Lab that even the prime minister referred to as "espionage" establishes a pattern of not only this government’s negligence, but its efforts to avoid accountability for said negligence.
It's important to understand this country's tragicomic policy incoherence as a societal failure in which academia, business and the foreign policy establishment are all demonstrably at fault. Stephen Harper's foreign policy, just as one example, was lauded only when it shifted from a critique-heavy doctrine that stressed human rights to one that focused on our great and growing trade interests. This shift in foreign policy was hailed as a return to where the Martin and Chrétien governments had positioned Canada in terms of its relationship with China.
In 1940, a short book was published in the early days of the Second World War. It blamed a decade of failed foreign policy and appeasement for the emboldenment of Germany and the weakening of the United Kingdom. It was called Guilty Men. The authors, at the time writing under the pseudonym of “Cato” — one would later turn out to be future Labour leader Michael Foot — castigated 15 senior British politicians and officials who failed to prepare their country for an endgame that was increasingly unavoidable. Your impression of Neville Chamberlain, and certainly the common pop culture associations with his name, were first laid down by this book.
We are nearing the end of Canada's era of Guilty Men. Canadians are owed a great many answers for the litany of failings that their government has served up when it comes to this country's relationship with the dictatorship that rules the People's Republic of China. I cannot say with any confidence that those answers will be forthcoming.
I can say with confidence that following his report, David Johnston became the latest of Canada's guilty men.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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