Special rapporteur David Johnston had to repeatedly defend his stance against holding a public inquiry on foreign interference as he testified in committee, facing opposition MPs who voted for a motion asking him to step down.
NDP MP Peter Julian asked Johnston how he can have a “deep respect for Parliament” when he chose to ignore a “clear parliamentary vote” asking him to resign.
“I do have deep respect for Parliament and I hope I’ve given good evidence of that through my life and through my time as governor general,” Johnston said during a meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on June 6.
“The reason that I’m continuing in this position, with respect to the motion of Parliament, is that I believe the vote was based on allegations that were false.”
It was adopted by a majority in the House on May 31 as opposition parties sided together. The motion notes that Johnston’s report tabled on May 23 has recommended against holding a public inquiry “despite noting significant gaps” in government processes and “leaving many questions either unasked or unanswered.”
“Serious questions have been raised about the special rapporteur process, the counsel he retained in support of this work, his findings, and his conclusions,” the motion adds.
Johnston didn’t elaborate on which part of the motion was based on “false” allegations, but opposition parties have taken issue with Johnston’s top adviser Sheila Block being a Liberal Party donor.
“Madam Block’s credentials, as a thoughtful, impartial person of great integrity, are known throughout this land for any members of the bar who’ve been acquainted with her,” Johnston said in Block’s defence.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, who along with Kwan has been publicly identified as being targeted by Beijing, asked Johnston how the confidence of the public can be restored with the current process.
Johnston was appointed to his role by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 15 amid calls for a public inquiry. Trudeau said at the time he would launch an inquiry if Johnston deemed it necessary.
Chong remarked that the only federal democratic process in Canada is the election of MPs, with every other appointment being made by the government.
“How can you and the government restore trust and confidence in our democracy if the government continues to defy the democratic wishes of our only national democratic institution, the House of Commons?” said Chong.
“I was asked by the government of the day to undertake a job to review foreign interference,” answered Johnston.
He said that instead of holding an inquiry, conducting public hearings would be a “very appropriate way to build trust in our institutions.”
This idea of holding hearings has been criticized by China observers and dissidents, who say the government already has a large amount of information on the topic and that communities targeted by the Chinese Communist Party won’t come forward for fear of being targeted.
“He doesn’t understand the diaspora would never want” hearings, said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston before the PROC on May 30.
“And so that suggests that he doesn’t have that understanding of what’s happening, the dynamic that’s happening in the communities out there of Chinese Canadians.” McCuaig-Johnston is a China expert and senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Ottawa.
Johnston acknowledged that some people will not want to participate in a public hearing. “That said, we will encourage anyone who wants to make a submission to us or write to us … [that] would be very much welcome and we hope we can give that appropriate attention.”