The Hamilton Spectator

Much ado about nothing much


Is the frenzy on Parliament Hill over foreign activity in election campaigns the fallout from a legitimate national security scandal, or is it — as I will contend — much ado about nearly nothing, another example of the political play-acting and hyperparti­sanship that has marked the House of Commons in recent years?

It has some trappings of a bigtime scandal. Two parliament­ary committees — the Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (known as PROS) and the National Security and Intelligen­ce Committee of Parliament­arians (NSICOP) have been on the case for two weeks.

They are conducting separate investigat­ions, hearing essentiall­y the same testimony from essentiall­y the same witnesses, learning precious little that they didn’t already know, and are so consumed by partisan sniping that their chances of agreeing on anything useful border on nil.

Meanwhile, day after day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced calls for a public inquiry. He’s been fending them off, but the pressure is mounting. On Thursday, the opposition majority on PROS passed an NDP resolution calling on the government to launch a public inquiry into allegation­s of foreign interferen­ce in all corners of our political system. The resolution is not binding on the government.

As CSIS director David Vigneault explained to PROS, a public inquiry would be as constraine­d as the committee is. Details of breaches of national security and actions taken, or not taken, are top-secret; the security agencies are prevented by law from disclosing them. Committee members or inquiry commission­ers can be given access to secret informatio­n. But the oath of secrecy they would have to take would prevent them from sharing their knowledge with anyone.

Although the New Democrats may well be genuine in their concern for national security, the Conservati­ves’ interventi­ons in the committee hearings and, daily, in the Commons, reek not of principle but of political opportunis­m.

I thought Michael Cooper, an Alberta Conservati­ve who is leading the attack at PROS, gave his party’s game away when he said on Thursday: “This scandal is about what the prime minister knows about this interferen­ce, when he first learned about it, and what he did about it or failed to do about it.”

The Tory strategy is unrelentin­g. Find an issue, and blame the prime minister personally.

To back up a bit, this all began on Feb. 17 when the Globe and Mail reported that an apparent whistleblo­wer had let two Globe reporters view, a highly classified document that described the activities of Chinese agents in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The document was real and the leak was a serious one. This much we know.

There are three things we don’t know. First, did the document say that the Chinese activities had extended to interferen­ce in an election, as has been claimed in some media reports?

Second, was Trudeau warned by the security services not to authorize certain compromise­d individual­s to run as Liberals? Third, when he was briefed, did he say, as claimed by the Conservati­ves, that he did not intend do anything about foreign interventi­on.

It is impossible to be certain without seeing the leaked document or records of the briefings. Available evidence suggests the answer to all three questions is no. Vigneault, the CSIS director, says the Chinese activities did not approach the threshold of interferen­ce. And RCMP Deputy Commission­er Michael Duheme told PROS: “We did not receive any actionable intelligen­ce that would warrant us to initiate a criminal investigat­ion.”

On balance, I’ll go with much ado about nearly nothing.

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