Why opposition MPs want to question Trudeau's chief of staff on election interference

OTTAWA — Opposition Conservatives say if Canadians want answers about China's meddling in the past two federal elections, they need to hear from Katie Telford, who has served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff since the Liberals were swept into power in 2015.

Here is a look at why opposition MPs say she needs to testify before a parliamentary committee investigating foreign interference, and how the Liberals are responding.

What do the Conservatives expect her to know?

Conservative MP Michael Cooper presented a motion before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday calling for Telford to testify for three hours.

It's his fourth attempt to get her in front of the committee.

The committee has been looking into interference after allegations reported by Global News and the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper that said security officials briefed Trudeau about Chinese election interference attempts.

The Conservatives and NDP say they accept the results of the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, which both resulted in a Liberal minority government.

A panel of bureaucrats was tasked with assessing threats to both elections. That panel did track interference attempts and was empowered to issue a warning to Canadians if the integrity of either election was under threat. However, whatever activity the panel was monitoring did not meet that threshold.

Still, the NDP, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois say reports of interference by China are concerning and that Trudeau's government must provide answers.

To get those answers, Cooper says, MPs must hear from his top aide.

"What is the heart of the issue is what the prime minister knows, when he first knew about it and what he did or failed to do," Cooper told MPs on Tuesday.

Questioning Telford is "crucial to getting to the truth," he said.

What is her job?

Telford is the highest-ranking political staffer in the Prime Minister's Office, which supports not only Trudeau, but his entire cabinet. It is a powerful, yet largely behind-the-scenes role.

There have been occasions during the Liberals' time in power, however, when Telford has stepped into the spotlight — most recently during last fall's public inquiry into the government's use of the Emergencies Act during the "Freedom Convoy" protests in 2022.

Telford testified that unlike other public servants, her job is a political one, in that she and others in the office work for Trudeau and the Liberal party during elections.

Besides managing his office and working with the chiefs of staffs of other ministers, Telford also acts his senior adviser.

That means providing Trudeau "with all the advice and the inputs that he needs to make the best decisions he can for Canadians," she testified.

That job description has meant Telford has been called to testify before other Commons committees when Trudeau has found himself in hot water.

In 2021, Telford was called to appear when Trudeau's office was accused of improperly handling a misconduct allegation against retired general Jonathan Vance, the former defence chief.

She also appeared before MPs in 2020, over the Liberal government's decision to have WE Charity, which had ties to Trudeau's family, run a multi-million dollar program for students.

Liberals decry "partisan games"

Liberal members of the procedure and House affairs committee, where Conservatives are pushing Telford to testify, talked out the clock on Tuesday. This meant MPs did not actually have time to vote on whether to call her as a witness.

NDP MP Rachel Blaney said while she typically disagrees with calling political staff to testify, in this case she is "persuaded" to think otherwise. The Bloc also signalled a willingness to lend its support.

Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell told MPs she is inclined to reject the motion because Trudeau has called for new investigations into foreign interference attempts. She said bringing Telford before the committee will not achieve the result of improving processes for the next federal election.

"As long as we're going to play partisan games with national security, I'm going to fight really, really hard to make sure that mature, responsible and reasonable decisions are made," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press