Canadians “want the facts” when it comes to suspects Chinese interference in the nation and what the government knows about it, experts say.
If it should be played in a forum such as public investigation will be decided by a special rapporteur David Johnsonwhich will present its recommendation on the matter next week.
“Canadians and parliamentarians want facts about why so many CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) assessments were sent to the government and apparently not acted upon,” said Charles Burton, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former counselor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
“The idea that we would have some neutral figure, who would have full access to all classified documents and who could make a judgment about what would be in the public interest to make public and what would not, would be highly desirable.”
‘Deeply disturbing’: Conservative MP Michael Chong testifies about alleged Chinese meddling
Johnson, 81, was named in March by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as special rapporteur on foreign interference and has until May 23 to decide whether a public inquiry or other independent process is needed to review allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections and society.
The Liberal government has been under enormous pressure to explain not only what it knew about foreign interference in recent elections, but also how it protects Canada’s democratic institutions.
The recommendation comes after months of reporting by Global News and the Globe and Mail on allegations of attempts by Beijing to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
Mendicino refuses to name MPs subject to foreign interference, citing privacy laws
For several months now, opposition members of parliament have demanded that a public inquiry be called. Trudeau, in turn, tapped Johnston to make that call and ordered a series of investigations into the allegations.
Additional allegations have continued to emerge, including one earlier this month from the Globe that China was reportedly exploring ways to intimidate Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.
It led to the government expels a Chinese diplomat the substance of the charges, as well as issuing a new political directive to CSIS to inform the government of threats against members of parliament, regardless of whether they are considered credible.
In return, Beijing expelled a Canadian diplomat and warned of further, albeit unspecified, retaliation.
Federal campaign officials testify about foreign election meddling
“We really need to know exactly what is going on here and why so much evidence has been presented of very serious allegations against the Chinese diplomatic authorities here in Canada,” Burton said.
Michael Wernick, who holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa and is a former clerk of the Privy Council, told Global News that while an inquiry may be necessary to restore public confidence, it is a “look back exercise.”
“It is inevitable that an inquiry would recommend strengthening Canadian legislation on foreign interference… The inquiry is not the place to write legislation – that is the job of legislators and parliamentarians,” he said.
“We can move forward with legislation to prepare for the future right away. There is no reason why a foreign interference bill cannot be introduced very soon and passed by Christmas.”
Poilievre, Conservatives increase political pressure on Trudeau’s government
If an investigation or legal review is recommended and eventually struck, its scope should be broad, Wernick suggests.
“I would prefer a broader scope that looks at foreign interference wherever it comes from, and it should have a very long timeline. It should go pretty far back in the past because the issue of foreign interference goes back at least 10 or 15 years,” said he.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be easy to find any Canadian to lead this inquiry who won’t be subject to partisan attacks and trolling,” he added.
“It would be a good idea to ask someone from the UK or Australia to lead the inquiry, someone familiar with national security issues, someone with government experience. There are plenty of people in the UK and Australia who might be suitable to run this the exercise.”
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, told Global News in an email that a public inquiry is necessary at this stage, and it’s one that could be done by a judge. He suggested former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour, who last year delivered a scathing report to the Canadian Armed Forces that found that military as currently constructed is a “debt” to the country.
Trudeau defends appointment of special rapporteur on election meddling, says opposition criticism ‘discredits serious issue’
Burton suggested that if that were to be the case, the person leading the inquiry should be a “prominent, neutral figure” who must have full access to all documents.
“Someone who should have the ability to summon anyone to appear before this prominent figure and have to testify under oath about everything they know, and that there should be the power of legal consequences for people who resist,” he said.
As part of his mandate, Johnston will provide regular reports to Trudeau, which will also be shared with opposition leaders and made available to Canadians. He is expected to complete his full review by October 31. He will have access to all relevant records and documents, classified or unclassified.
Johnston will also consult and work with institutions, agencies and officials across the federal government – including the Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Privy Council Office and Elections Canada – as well as political parties represented in the House of Commons.
NDP MP pushes for public inquiry into election meddling
“There’s nothing really stopping the government from taking action and taking action between now and October,” Wernick said.
“Obviously the advice from Mr. Johnston will be of great help to them, but they don’t have to wait for that.”
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.