China interference story has legs, but no body

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The request for a public inquiry is more about political damage than solutions.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 29, 2023.

OTTAWA—The China interference story is a political scandal with legs, but no body.

Opposition leaders did not like the outcome of David Johnston’s inquiry into the issue. They obviously prefer a two- or three-year process that would keep the issue percolating in public consciousness.

According to March polling by the Angus Reid Institute, the majority of Canadians believe that China likely interfered with the last election.

Canadians may not be convinced by Johnston, whose report makes it clear that the government did not have knowledge of any Chinese interference, but a public inquiry is not likely to provide any more clarity.

It will simply keep the questions in the public domain, promoting the stench of a scandal without evidence.

Another poll by Nanos released earlier this month shows the Liberals have been lagging seven points behind the Conservatives since the allegations on Chinese interference first surfaced.

So, it stands to reason that opposition parties would like to keep the issue front and centre.

It also stands to reason that if the majority of information sources gathered by security and intelligence services in Canada is classified as top secret, there would not be much use in having a public inquiry into state secrets.

That was why Johnston offered a top-secret briefing to each of the opposition leaders. The only one to take him up on his offer was New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre not only refuse the briefing, he also attacked Johnston personally, and characterized his findings as fake, a reaction that provoked a rebuke even in Tory circles.

Conservative pundit Tim Powers pulled no punches in his column for The Hill Times in which he accuses Poilievre of taking “the built-in cantankerous critic role of his job to new dimensions. …Poilievre basically suggested Johnston, a fine man, was some kind of partisan dirtbag political trougher.” Powers went on to say that “he has cultivated a persona for himself that projects a nasty ruthlessness.”

Powers decries the approach and basically says that everyone loses when our leaders hike up the nasty quotient in politics.

Poilievre certainly displayed that quotient when he attacked Johnston’s character as the former governor general has nobly served both the Liberals and the previous Conservative government of which Poilievre was a minister.

When the public is focussed on foreign interference allegations, the opposition wins.

It matters not that the first person to resign based on those allegations was Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Vincent Ke at Queen’s Park.

Media attention has primarily focused on the Liberal government in Ottawa.

In a minority situation, the Conservatives want to issue a summons to force Johnston to the standing committee on procedure and House affairs for a grilling about the contents of his report and his refusal to recommend a public inquiry.

The governing Liberals do not want to issue a summons as Johnston has already agreed to voluntarily appear at the committee.

Opposition parties collectively penned a letter in which they called Johnston’s decision “a slap in the face to diaspora groups who are subject to abuse and intimidation by hostile foreign governments.”

Johnston is calling for public hearings instead of a public inquiry. The public may not understand the nuances of difference between inquiry and hearings, but political parties certainly do.

A public inquiry would likely drag on for a couple of years, with multiple in-camera hearings as information leaks out.

Public hearings in different regions of the country would allow those involved in local riding election to have their say, but would likely not shed much light on specific foreign strategies to influence elections.

Every foreign embassy has a direct interest in Canadian elections. In many communities across the country, differing diaspora interests play a role in electing representatives who share their policy objectives.

On the ground, nomination battles can be aggressive between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese supporters, between Tamils and other Indian subgroups, and between two different groups of Sikhs.

In the olden days, the battlegrounds were religious. Today, they are based on the differing diaspora populations in political constituencies.

All foreign governments follow nomination battles closely in communities where their former citizens are populous.

This is not just a Chinese challenge. It is a foreign government challenge.

Johnston’s report makes several recommendations, including better communications between politicians and secret service agencies when any threat is linked to a foreign government.

But the request for a public inquiry is more about political damage than solutions.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.