Opposition keeps pressure on the Liberals to call a public inquiry into interference
OTTAWA — Canada's official Opposition is expressing little confidence that the Liberal government will appoint a truly independent watchdog to investigate foreign interference.
The New Democrats, who are the Liberals' closest allies in the House of Commons through the confidence-and-supply agreement reached between those parties, share similar concerns.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday he will appoint a "special rapporteur" to probe foreign interference in Canada and recommend what more to do about it, among several measures aimed at responding to renewed scrutiny of the Liberal response so far.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Tuesday that he thinks Trudeau will tap someone close to him or his government for the job.
"He'll pick another Liberal establishment insider, a real Ottawa insider with some grey hair who looks like a reasonable fella, but we all know that it will be someone tied to him," Poilievre said.
Trudeau responded by saying he is open to other parties' suggestions for the role.
"We will ensure that whoever is chosen, is someone who both has the capacity to ensure that we're doing all the right things to fight interference, and has the capacity to give all Canadians confidence in the openness, transparency and rigour of that process," Trudeau said Tuesday.
The New Democrats have already expressed interest in recommending people to serve as the rapporteur, who Trudeau said would be chosen "in the coming days."
The fact that the Liberal government will make the choice has their rivals concerned.
The special rapporteur will have a broad mandate to investigate foreign interference and recommend next steps, including the possibility of a public inquiry.
Trudeau has argued this is a way to remove partisan politics from the public debate, but critics say the prime minister is buying time.
The Conservatives and NDP both accept the results of the 2019 and 2021 election. And a panel of bureaucrats have determined the past two elections remained free and fair, an assessment that national security agencies agree with.
Despite this, attempts at foreign interference — mainly by China — have emerged in recent media reports, resulting in calls for more transparency on how the government deals with the issue.
Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the government could do a better job communicating what the problem is about and what it will do about it.
"I hope that one of the lessons that comes from the crisis right now is that not being transparent about these things is … bad for national security," said Juneau, whoco-chaired the National Security Transparency Advisory Group, a federal body that advises the government on the implementation of its commitment on openness about national security.
The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois believe an independent inquiry is needed for the sake of transparency, with Poilievre describing it as "bringing home control of our democracy."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his MPs want an entirely independent and public process.
"It's clear this is what parliamentarians want, what Canadians want," Singh said Tuesday. "And that's what we believe will restore confidence in the electoral process."
The Tories have long criticized the Liberals for being too soft on China and not taking the issue of foreign interference seriously.
"This is an opportunity for the opposition, especially the Conservatives, to score (political) points," said Daniel Béland, director at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
However, Béland cautioned that the Conservatives need to avoid "excessive, over-the-top speculation that will feed conspiracy theories," which he said could further undermine confidence in the electoral system.
Some have warned that a public inquiry may not yield the desired result because national security concerns could prevent officials from revealing much information, and a large portion of the inquiry would likely be held in camera to protect classified information. Furthermore, a final report following the inquiry could take years, long after the next election is called.
The rapporteur will also be able to recommend another type of investigation or a judicial review, Béland said.
"Even if it's about secret information, the debate is already very public and more information is being leaked," he said.
Poilievre has pitched the idea of a public inquiry in which top-secret information is under a publication ban, and only information that will imperil national interests is withheld.
On Monday, Trudeau left the door open to holding a public inquiry should the rapporteur recommend it.
Béland said that may be required just to lower the partisan temperature "and look at the issues in a more detached way." Others agreed.
"In the end it's not going to be a bad thing because it can be a useful tool … to ensure more transparency and accountability," Juneau said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2023.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press