That David Johnston scandal, in full

ANDREW COYNE: A reasonable person would conclude there was neither quid, nor pro, nor quo

I like to think my credentials as an Airbus obsessive are in order, so allow me to dissociate myself from any suggestion that the appointment of David Johnston as Governor General is somehow tainted by it.

It’s true that it was Johnston, as adviser to the Prime Minister on the terms of reference for the Oliphant inquiry, who recommended against including the Airbus scandal in its mandate, a decision that looks all the more baffling in light of the judge’s findings: not only that Brian Mulroney took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, shortly after leaving office, from the very man from whom he was accused of taking bribes while in office, but that he lied about it, up to and including his appearance before the inquiry. Regardless of whether Mulroney was personally involved, the circumstances surrounding the Airbus deal are so suspicious that, even 22 years later, they cry out for an inquiry — not in spite of the passage of time but because of it. Johnston’s reasoning, that Airbus, having once been the subject of an RCMP investigation, was “well-tilled ground,” is simply unsupported by the facts: the RCMP had only just begun their investigation when it was shut down by the leaking of the infamous “Swiss letter,” a calamity from which it never recovered.

That’s my opinion, at any rate. Lots of perfectly sensible people with no obvious axes to grind thought he was spot on. But even if you take my view of it, it’s a long way from an error of judgement to a conflict of interest. Those who insinuate there was something unseemly in Johnston’s appointment — sometimes accompanied by the disclaimer that, although they themselves do not believe any of this, others might — are obliged to offer some evidence, or even a plausible rationale, before tossing about such incendiary charges.

At the very least they should say clearly what they mean. Is it seriously alleged that Johnston and Harper cooked up a deal in advance — you keep Airbus out of the inquiry, and I’ll make you Governor General? Surely no one is that far gone. Is it, then, that a grateful Harper bestowed the appointment upon him as a sort of reward, ie that it was only the appointment, and not the advice, that was corrupt — a prospect the Star’s Jim Travers raises, but can’t be arsed to properly debunk? Or is it merely, as Rick Salutin claims, that Johnston’s role in the Oliphant inquiry was an “audition” (whoops, “what can be seen as an audition”), a “test of what the guy might do in a situation where Harper interests are at stake.” You follow the logic: because he had ruled in a way that was supposedly favourable to Harper’s interests in the matter of Mulroney’s cash, he could also be relied upon to do so, say, in a constitutional crisis, the connecting factor being — what?

Nothing in Johnston’s life or record suggests he would offer an opinion based on anything but his best judgment of the public interest. He has never been accused of any partisan leanings; Elections Canada’s site shows no record of him having contributed to a federal political party (apart, perhaps, from an “Experts-Conseil David Johnston Inc.”, which gave $459 to the Liberal Party of Canada in 2000). As far as I am aware, he has no personal links to Harper, and his “involvement” with Mulroney seems limited to having accepted the latter’s appointment as the first chairman of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. By the same standard, his 1994-99 stint as chairman of the Advisory Council to the Federal Government on the Information Highway makes him a Chrétien crony. Perhaps it could be argued that, as a prominent member of the Canadian establishment, he is blinded by class loyalty. Supposing that were true: why should that make him a Harper man? Why not Ignatieff, whom he more obviously resembles in background and outlook (and who has warmly endorsed his appointment)?

So the suggestion that Johnston advised as he did in the inquiry out of some personal or professional loyalty to the Conservative cause, or that he might do so in some future controversy, is clearly baseless — as baseless as the notion that he did so in return for being made Governor General, or the reverse, that he was given the office as a reward for his advice. (Some “reward”: as president of the University of Waterloo, Johnston earned more than $503,000 in salary and benefits last year, roughly four times what he will make in his new job.) The only evidence for it is that the recommendation happened to go Harper’s way.

But did it? The Airbus affair happened more than twenty years ago, under a different government and, arguably, a different party. At the time Harper was a member of the fledgling Reform party, founded in opposition to the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives. No member of the current Conservative government is alleged to have been involved, nor is anyone in Harper’s personal retinue – the sole exception being Mulroney himself, with whom Harper had a brief and ill-advised rapprochement, but who was by the time the inquiry was called persona non grata, and has remained so ever since.

And who called the inquiry? Harper. Had Airbus been included in Judge Oliphant’s mandate, there is no particular reason to assume his report would have been greatly damaging to Harper’s interests, any more than, say, the Air India inquiry, which also concerned events during Mulroney’s time in office. Oliphant’s report was damning enough as it was, with regard to Mulroney’s personal conduct: it seems to have had no impact on Harper’s poll standings. Who knows? A broader inquiry might even have won Harper points for transparency. (I know it didn’t work out so well for Paul Martin, but that was about events in a government of which he was an integral part, not least as senior minister for Quebec. It stretched credulity to believe that he knew nothing at all of the sponsorship mess, and whatever benefit of the doubt he enjoyed vanished when he called a snap election before the inquiry had been completed.)

To recap: there’s no evidence, nor any reason to think, that Johnston’s advice regarding Oliphant was based on anything but his own best judgement. It’s not clear that Harper benefited politically from it, while Johnston’s “reward” involves taking a 75% pay cut. So where is the scandal here? It’s true that there need not be any actual quid pro quo for there to exist a conflict of interest: it is enough that a reasonable person might have a well-founded suspicion there was. But in this case a reasonable person would conclude there was neither quid, nor pro, nor quo.

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