David Johnston keeps collecting great appointments

Former governor general David Johnston is a guy everyone in power wants on their team because he’s pretty reliable at giving you what you want while wearing a neutral sweater. .


David Johnston, a former governor general appointed and reappointed by Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, former law dean, university head etc., is now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice for “rapporteur” on Chinese attempts to infiltrate Canadian elections. Widely respected, eminent etc. John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail says, “There are few, if any, figures in Canadian life whose word can be more trusted.” Hm. But by whom?

The Conservatives rejected the choice, as they promised to all along, portraying Johnston as a Liberal lackey. That’s a bit tricky since Harper made him governor general, exactly because he could be counted on.

How so? In 2007 Harper had just become prime minister due to public disgust with previous Liberal corruption. Suddenly it emerged that former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney had taken cash in hotel rooms (literally, I swear) from a bagman for Airbus and others, who was trying to sell to Canada. Harper couldn’t avoid an inquiry but he got Johnston to write the terms for it. Johnston kept those narrow and prohibited questions about why Mulroney got the money. Whew!

After Harper received Johnston’s masterwork he told aides, “Whatever we paid him for this, it wasn’t enough.” It was like an audition for GG. The only time a governor general really matters is when there’s a minority government like Harper’s and the GG gets to decide whether they survive. In 2010, Harper gave Johnston the gig.

This is a guy who everyone in power wants on their team because he’s pretty reliable at giving you what you want while wearing a neutral sweater. If the Conservatives were honest, they’d have said, He did what we wanted when we appointed him and we object now because we know he’ll do what they want.

The real test of neutrality shouldn’t be that everyone (powerful) respects you; it’s whether you’ve offended any of them because they deserved it. (This doesn’t include the non-powerful. Johnston as governor general offended Indigenous Peoples when he called them “immigrants” like everyone else, albeit 14,000 years ago.)

Poilievre could’ve gone after Johnston based on populist anti-elitism, for which Johnston is clearly eligible, and Conservatives have tested the waters on that. It’s tricky though, since most of them have done little in their adult lives except politics in Ottawa or the provincial capitals, for which they’ve been well paid with public money while building up their pensions. Speaking of which,

En grève for retirement!

It is deeply and cheeringly emblematic that workers all over France are out on strike over the issue of when they get to retire, i.e., go on strike permanently. The New York Times’ Catherine Porter, formerly of the Star, calls it a highly philosophical debate there. Doubtless it is, in the land of loquacious cafés, but we’re surely talking existentialism, not idealism, logical positivism, empiricism etc.

The existential point at issue is: at what age are you still able to fully undertake The Good Life, when you’ve hopefully accrued some wisdom and patience but still have substantial vigour to expend. Right now it’s pegged at 62 in France, which President Emmanuel Macron, on strictly fiscal grounds, is trying to raise. But if you wait too long, medical issues start predominating, as death impinges on life. As I write, the conflict is teetering.

Simon Kuper of the Financial Times says since moving to France, he’s realized that “on most important issues … the French tend to be right.” You must get to retirement while “your system remains nearly workable.”

What subtends the clash, I’d say, is an awareness of the implicit deal between workers and employers. The former give their best, body and spirit, in return for pay, while keeping their own needs and desires at the edges of their lives, when day is done. But at some point, while you can still enjoy it, you deserve to be boss of your own time and efforts, in the full light of day.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[