Behind the scenes, Trudeau’s MPs say a public inquiry into Chinese election interference is the only real option at this point
OTTAWA — Former governor general David Johnston has been hand-picked to advise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government whether it should call a public inquiry into foreign elections interference — a choice Conservatives criticized but many welcomed, including several Liberal backbenchers who believe a public inquiry is an inevitable outcome.
Trudeau announced Wednesday he’d named Johnston as a “special rapporteur” — describing the former head of state, law professor and federal election debates commissioner as a highly respected Canadian who “brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills” to the dilemma of how best to address controversial and sensational allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system.
In picking Johnston, whom former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper appointed as governor general in 2010, Trudeau may have been hoping to win all-party support for a cooler approach to the hot-button issue.
However, prior to the news of Johnston’s appointment, several Liberals who spoke to the Star had expressed doubt that anything less than a public inquiry would satisfy growing Canadian concerns about reported efforts, particularly by the Chinese communist-led government, to flex its muscle in Canadian elections and in other spheres.
Liberals underlined Johnston’s credentials and trustworthiness, with one MP telling the Star he is a “good choice” who brings credibility to the job.
But that MP, like several others who spoke only on condition they not be identified in order to speak freely, said that the only real option at this stage is to name an inquiry. He said it should look at reported CSIS allegations of interference at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government.
Another Liberal MP from the Greater Toronto Area, speaking confidentially, said it is “time for an inquiry” but it should also probe the role of Canada’s national security apparatus, particularly CSIS and the RCMP, which he said is unable to identify real threats and unfairly targets some communities.
Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith said the measures the government had already previously announced — including the special rapporteur — are “ultimately sensible. We just need to see them realized and realized yesterday.”
Marc Serré, one of the few Liberals who agreed to be quoted, disagreed with colleagues who want an inquiry, saying he finds the attacks from the Opposition, particularly from Poilievre, to be unfair and dangerously partisan when talking about a global issue with implications for Canadian democracy.
“Having a public inquiry in this type of politicized environment would be a farce,” Serré said. “Beijing is loving every minute of this.”
The prime minister said Johnston will have a “wide mandate” to look into the issue, but Trudeau indicated the review will be limited to elections meddling. Trudeau’s news release said Johnston will look at “foreign interference in the last two federal general elections and make expert recommendations on how to further protect our democracy.”
In recent weeks, following media reports of leaks of classified documents alleging the Chinese government tried to influence candidate nominations in a handful of ridings or election outcomes in the 2019 and 2021 elections, the Trudeau government has been under fire to reveal just what CSIS and the RCMP told it about elections meddling, and what it did in response.
The Star has not independently verified those reported leaks.
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Consultant Artur Wilczynski, a former assistant deputy minister at the foreign signals intelligence agency, Communications Security Establishment, hailed Johnston’s appointment, telling CBC that as former governor general, Johnston would be accustomed to being briefed on national security matters and “he has the ability to integrate a real complexity of issues, synthesize them quickly, and make real good decisions in Canada’s interest.”
Trudeau promised Johnston’s advice would be made public, and that his government would comply with and implement his recommendations “which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review or another independent review process.”
Conservatives, and even some Liberals worry the question of foreign interference extends more broadly to university research, the exploitation of resources, military secrets, and the use of threats and so-called Chinese “police stations” in Canada to exert influence on expat communities. Last week, Liberal MP John McKay said it is broader than elections meddling, and a problem that Canadians “have to come to grips with.”
Trudeau said he chose Johnston following consultations with parties, but a government official clarified the consultations involved seeking suggestions, as opposed to confirming Johnston’s acceptance by all parties in the House of Commons.
After Johnston was named, the NDP, which has called for a non-partisan and transparent inquiry to get to the bottom of allegations of foreign interference, said it was aware Johnston was among “many names” being floated, but Jagmeet Singh — who spoke with Trudeau on the weekend — was not informed he was the choice. An NDP official told the Star it still wants the government to strike an inquiry that is independent and transparent, and soon.
However, Singh has not indicated if it is a deal-breaker.
On Parliament Hill last week, Poilievre accused Trudeau of covering up for Beijing’s governing party — allegations the Liberals have called disgusting and ridiculous.
Johnston’s appointment comes in addition to closed-door reviews being undertaken by a security-cleared committee of parliamentarians, and by a civilian-led review agency of how the government detected and monitored the threat in those past two elections.
Previous panels of senior public servants concluded there were attempts at influence, but no meaningful impact on election outcomes.
Speaking in Newfoundland on Wednesday before revealing Johnston’s appointment,
Trudeau criticized “politicians” who have taken to “amping up the level of partisanship and political attacks. That’s not the way to respond to this very, very serious issue.” He said his government’s approach “is serious, responsible, grounded in facts and independent decision making, not playing partisan political games.”
With files from Alex Ballingall, Ottawa bureau.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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