What would it take for Canada to have a 'serious' debate about foreign interference?
With accusations flying in all directions, Canadians' confidence in our elections is in peril
Appearing in Winnipeg a day after David Johnston released his first report on foreign interference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed the word "serious."
"I would simply ask Canadians, and indeed opposition leaders, to actually look at the substance of this very serious issue and take it with the seriousness it deserves," he told reporters.
Trudeau's appeal to seriousness is in keeping with his current line of attack against Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre — the Liberal argument being that these are serious times that require serious leadership and ideas, and Poilievre offers neither.
But "seriousness" is now a concern for everyone involved in this affair.
WATCH: Trudeau attacks Poilievre's decision not to read Johnston's report
The prime minister's criticism this week was directed at Poilievre's stated refusal to review the secret portion of Johnston's report. The Conservative leader's stated concern is that he would be "silenced" or "muzzled" if he agrees to review a separate volume that Johnston prepared to explain the confidential information that led him to his conclusions. Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet has similarly referred to the government's offer as a "trap."
The leaders presumably would be expected not to reveal secret information that isn't currently in the public domain. But it's not clear how encumbered they would be otherwise.
They would, for instance, be able to offer their opinions of Johnston's work, said Leah West, a former counsel with the Department of Justice's national security litigation and advisory group.
"You can be general. You just have to not talk about the stuff that's itself classified," West said. "Your opinion of it — whether or not it's unconvincing, it wasn't researched enough or you thought that it was inconclusive or that Johnston didn't tell the whole story — none of that is talking about the information."
As West pointed out, all party leaders are also MPs who enjoy the protection of parliamentary privilege — meaning they can say whatever they want on the floor of the House of Commons without fear of criminal prosecution. (The House of Commons could try to take action against someone deemed by the majority of members to have abused their privilege.)
WATCH: Poilievre says he 'chose not to meet' with Johnston
Poilievre has said he fears that if he looks at Johnston's confidential report, he won't be able to discuss things that have been reported already in the media. West said he should still be able to refer to things that are in the public domain, so long as he doesn't say it matches what he saw in secret.
But if opposition leaders have specific concerns, they could attempt to address those directly with the prime minister. That's what NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did this week.
After indicating he was interested in reviewing Johnston's full report, Singh wrote to Trudeau on Thursday to ask for a briefing from officials about security considerations. Singh said he would be seeking written assurances that he "would be able to speak as freely [as Johnston] about my conclusions based on the intelligence I am allowed to view and that my ability to be critical of the government's actions will not be constrained."
While Conservatives are chiding Singh for maintaining the NDP's confidence-and-supply agreement despite Trudeau's refusal to call a public inquiry, Singh's approach to the Johnston report has the virtue of appearing serious.
The need for seriousness doesn't stop there
If there were serious reporting on the media in Canada, there might be also a serious discussion happening now about the reporting of leaked intelligence. Johnston's report this week is not the first to raise such questions for the media — an inquiry into Canada's treatment of Maher Arar raised concerns about media leaks more than 16 years ago.
Johnston's report does not amount to a total indictment of the Canadian media's reporting on foreign interference by Chinese state officials. But it also falls well short of an endorsement. At the very least, it seems worth asking whether reporting on intelligence leaks could or should be improved.
The most strenuous attacks have been focused on Johnston and his credibility. To some degree, that's fair. No one in public life can be considered beyond scrutiny.
If attacks on his credibility are to be taken seriously, though, then one logically has to ask whether Stephen Harper was wrong to extend Johnston's term as governor general in March 2015 — thus putting Johnston in a position to preside over that year's election — and whether Trudeau was wrong to make Johnston the first debates commissioner.
WATCH: Should David Johnston have stayed in retirement?
(If Johnston is feeling a little glum these days, he might review the gushing praise he received from all sides when he appeared before the procedure and House affairs committee to discuss the latter appointment in November 2018.)
It's also not accurate to say Canadians are compelled to take Johnston's word on foreign interference — the matter will now be taken up by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which should be capable of both reviewing Johnston's work and doing its own investigation. NSICOP now carries a serious responsibility.
But while questions about Johnston's credibility could stain the entire process, they also — ironically — risk drowning out the very serious questions his report raised about how intelligence is shared and scrutinized within government, and the implications those questions have for national security.
What Trudeau has to take seriously
Johnston's report did cast doubt on the most serious aspersions cast on the government over the last several months. But it is hardly reassuring to read Johnston's discovery that the minister of public safety didn't have access to an email network through which CSIS apparently tried to report that China intended to target Conservative MP Michael Chong.
For Trudeau, the issues deserving of seriousness include the credibility of the current process for investigating the substance of recent media leaks, along with the proper functioning of Canada's security systems and the institutions put in place to guard against foreign interference heading into the next federal election.
Questions about Johnston's credibility and his decision to refrain from recommending a public inquiry might not leave behind too much damage to Canada's broader democratic system — particularly if NSICOP does good and thorough work.
But while there might always be arguments about what happened in years past, attention must be paid now to what's ahead. Whenever the next election occurs, Canadians need to feel confident that the system in place to detect and deal with interference is robust, responsive, transparent and well understood. And the past few months have shown there are disagreements about how well the system functioned and how it should function — particularly in the case of former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu.
New polling from the Angus Reid Institute says just 37 per cent of Canadians are confident that the government can handle foreign interference in future elections — a number that no one should want to see go much lower.
Appeals for seriousness are hard to quibble with. Beyond the tweets and hot takes, what's at stake here is the health of Canada's democratic system. There are few things more serious.
But the demand for seriousness extends to everyone — not least the prime minister.