David Johnston was ready to appear before the House of Commons’ Procedure and House Affairs committee on his ongoing probe into foreign interference and decision not to recommend a public inquiry before opposition MPs issued a letter calling on him to do so.
“We have not had reluctance on the part of the right honourable David Johnston to appear,” PROC chair and Liberal MP Bardish Chagger said during a committee meeting on Thursday.
She added that after a motion and witness list had been approved earlier this year, a call was made in late April to Johnston to request him to appear on June 6.
But due to the report being underway, Chagger said he had told the committee he would not be able to testify until it had been released.
On Tuesday, opposition MPs submitted a letter requesting Thursday’s meeting to discuss having Johnston appear, while also criticizing the former governor general’s stance on a public inquiry.
That same day, he recommended against a public inquiry into allegations of Chinese interference, while saying public hearings during his report on the topic should be held.
“David Johnston’s decision is a slap in the face to diaspora groups who are subject to abuse and intimidated by hostile foreign governments and all Canadians rightly concerned about foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections and future elections,” the letter reads.
Committee members from the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois had signed it.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett said the new summons was needed given nearly two months have gone by since the committee had originally requested testimony.
“Canadians have questions and having Mr. Johnston appear is what needs to happens,” Barrett said.
“The summons guarantees that he appears for three hours and it also removes some of the variables … that if the can’s kicked down the road weeks and weeks, then we could find ourselves in a position where we don’t have the opportunity to ask these vital questions.”
Barrett cited the possibility of prorogation as an example of such a variable.
Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull criticized the move, saying it was “not a good faith attempt at getting to the bottom of this.” He also made an amendment that was passed inviting Johnston to appear by no later than June 6, without summoning him to do so.
The distinction lies in how openly the committee wields the powers at its disposal — frequently, witnesses are invited initially to testify with formal orders to appear often used for cases where a witness does not accept the initial invitation.
A committee summons is served by a bailiff and if not obeyed, can result in the House of Commons using its exceptional powers to summon a person to the bar for formal discipline.
Trudeau said he would abide by Johnston’s recommendations on whether to call a public inquiry.
The public hearings Johnston recommends should address parts of his mandate that are not classified, he said. Johnston suggested he conduct the hearings as part of the second phase of his work. Johnston will be in the role until October.
He added that the public hearings will include members of diaspora communities and experts in national security and international relations.
— With files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea
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