Foreign interference talks: Parties trade jabs for bipartisan chats from the cottage

OTTAWA — Discussions about a public inquiry on foreign interference have stretched well into the summer, as House leaders put aside political jabs that dominated Parliament for much of the year in exchange for "collaborative" chats from hotel rooms and the cottage.

Alex Marland, a professor in Acadia University's politics department, said the shift signals that political leaders are trying to earnestly make progress on an inquiry.

"My sense is that what's happened is all the different political parties have read the public mood, and realized this reaches the status of something that's considered very, very serious," Marland said Thursday.

"There's no time for partisanship on this anymore. Something has to be done, and therefore they all want to be able to find a way to move it forward."

It's a change in tone from the spring when media reports alleged China tried to interfere in the last two federal elections.

"Circus" or "buffoonery" was how some Liberal MPs described the pressure from opposition parties pushing the government to call a public inquiry into accusations of election meddling by bad foreign actors.

At the same time, there was "a lot of grouching" about how the Liberals weren't doing things right, said Laura Stephenson, professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

"There was so much negativity going on," she said. "It was turning into a spectacle."

Citing the partisan atmosphere, former governor general David Johnston resigned in the spring as the special rapporteur on foreign interference, three months after being appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In an attempt to lower the temperature, Trudeau tasked Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc to work with opposition parties.

In June, LeBlanc began meeting with party House leaders — Andrew Scheer of the Conservatives, Peter Julian from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois' Alain Therrien. Their goal was to set the terms of reference for a public inquiry and choose someone to lead it.

"It's not easy to get four recognized political parties (together)," LeBlanc said Tuesday during the Liberal cabinet retreat in Charlottetown.

"If you listen to the tone in the House of Commons in June, (one) might have different views on how this work should be done. The good news is we've arrived at very similar, thoughtful positions."

Since their discussions began, very little information has emerged about what a public inquiry might look like.

"That we haven't heard a lot of negativity about it is a sign that they are trying to earnestly make progress," Marland said. "But also that all the parties realize that this is actually something so serious that it's beyond being able to score partisan points over at the moment."

LeBlanc told reporters he shares their excitement "to find out where this really ends."

"I was at my cottage in the summer. I had a nice time, the weather was nice, and I was having video meetings with Scheer, Therrien and Julian. You can see why I'm anxious to get this completed."

LeBlanc said others have joined video meetings from hotels while vacationing with family.

The government is now talking to sitting judges in a bid to find someone to lead a public inquiry, he said.

"It's up to the prime minister's department to approach these people and convince them to fulfil the position," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Wednesday.

He reiterated that his party will remain open to negotiations, as long as the process remains non-partisan.

Earlier this week, Julian of the NDP praised the process, saying it prompted the Liberal government to support the idea of an inquiry to deal with foreign interference after months of resisting.

"I am confident that we will have a public inquiry by the end of the summer," Julian said in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Alex Marland is head of the political science department at Memorial University. In fact, Marland is a professor at Acadia University.