Credibility key in election-meddling probe
Liberal party will have to avoid the reflex of trying to stack the deck
Special rapporteur David Johnston has recommended against a formal commission of inquiry into Chinese government interference in Canada.
Johnston's statement that “any public inquiry would not be public at all” seems based on his conclusion that the information he's seen must remain secret.
Johnston still has a second part to his mandate that doesn't end until late October. Ever since Trudeau's famous exchanges with President Xi Jinping at a G-20 summit last November, Canadians have been trying to get straight answers. The fact that it's taken six months just to get to this point means that Trudeau has achieved his first goal: delay long enough to ensure that nothing will come out that could hurt the Liberals before the next federal election. Canadians have already had a report by three senior bureaucrats that was supposed to quiet things down, when they said the result of the election hadn't been affected. Their work was then reviewed by the former head of the Trudeau Foundation, Morris Rosenberg.
The question wasn't whether the final result — a Liberal minority — had been affected. Canadians wanted to know if it was indeed true that a foreign power had worked against certain candidates (mostly Conservative) and if so, why the government hadn't reacted. In Johnson's view, there is no evidence the government knowingly ignored intelligence. But how can he know that with any certainty if there's never been a process where both sides could be heard?
The fact that nothing was ever made public before Trudeau's tiff with Xi leads many to believe, reasonably, that the Liberals sat on their hands because they were the prime beneficiaries of this interference. The answers to key questions concerning election interference, the operation of so-called Chinese government “police stations” on Canadian soil and threats to the family of a sitting MP, Michael Chong, were never going to be easy to obtain.
Canada's security agencies, CSIS first among them, will be in a position to provide a great deal of evidence, but tradecraft — how they gather evidence — has to be protected. That requires safeguards and could prove tricky, but it can't be a reason not to hold a formal inquiry. The information on interference has thus far touched all three levels of government with municipal (Vancouver mayoralty), provincial (Ontario Premier Doug Ford's caucus) and of course federal elections and offices allegedly affected.
There is an inherent unfairness in all of this as Canadians of Asian origin already feel the sting of discrimination. Now, even legitimate community groups that provide services to the Chinese community here are beginning to feel targeted. Individual Canadians of Chinese origin know that these hearings could bring renewed suspicion and ill will.
Diaspora communities of religious and ethnic minorities have always played a key role in backing friendly candidates willing to help champion their issues. That's just part of Canadian democratic life that Johnston will look at in his second phase.
The essential difference here is the alleged direct role of a foreign power. Once it became clear the Trudeau Foundation would have to be under the commission's microscope, Johnston would have been wise to withdraw, given his prior role there. Now that he's persisted and given his recommendations, Trudeau himself has to prove he understands that these issues transcend the partisan interests of the Liberals.
The choice of next steps will be crucial. The Liberals will have to avoid the reflex of trying to stack the deck. Credible people, with no Liberal connections and who also represent Canadian diversity, must be included in any process put in place.
Approval of any nominations in Parliament would be a good way to help enhance the authority of anyone tapped to help carry out the exceptionally important work that remains to be done.