MPs vote for public inquiry into foreign election interference

Opposition MPs passed a motion Thursday calling for the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference, after hearing hours testimony from top intelligence officials who sought to assure that the integrity of Canada’s last two elections was upheld despite meddling attempts by China.

After debate spanning two meetings of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC), by a vote of 6-5 with Liberal MPs voting against, opposition parties voted in favour of an NDP motion calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enact an inquiry that would include but not be limited to allegations of election meddling.

The committee still needs to report this decision to the House, but it is non-binding, meaning it’s still in the government’s purview whether to take the committee’s advice.

The opposition MPs want this inquiry to “go where the evidence takes it” have the power to compel relevant national security documents, and call key government and political party figures to testify. This could include ministers, top staffers and national campaign directors for political parties during the 2021 and 2019 election campaigns.

Now, the New Democrats say the ball is “squarely” in Trudeau’s court to order the probe under Canada’s Inquiries Act.

“He now has a clear message from our committee with all opposition parties supporting. We are urging him to do the right thing,” said NDP MP and House Leader Peter Julian.

The Conservatives amended the motion to include language asking that the inquiry investigate the abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments. The Official Opposition also advanced wording that seeks to ensure that individual heading this inquiry be unanimously selected by all recognized parties in the House of Commons, and that the inquiry does not impede PROC’s work from continuing.

“What I believe is appropriate to get to the bottom of this interference by way of an inquiry is an inquiry that is targeted and focused, that can produce a report in the near future… We need answers and we need answers now,” said Conservative MP and committee member Michael Cooper during Thursday’s hearing, repeatedly emphasizing how it’s his party’s position that Canadians deserve to have these questions answered in the light of day, rather than behind closed doors.

PROC has a mandate to review and report on the election of members to the House of Commons. The MPs on this committee have been studying the issue of foreign election interference through public meetings since November, in light of recent media reporting alleging various “sophisticated” attempts by China to meddle, including claims that specific MPs or candidates were targeted, in an effort to re-elect Liberals.

But, in advancing the public inquiry proposal, the NDP took the position that, as more reports emerge, the parliamentary committee is not the most appropriate venue to continue this investigation.

In moving the motion, Julian said the hours of wrangling between MPs made the case for a non-partisan inquiry, calling Conservatives’ conduct during the hearings “a circus” and “unfortunate and ridiculous.”

The vote followed hours of ultimately unsuccessful procedural deliberations over efforts lead by the Conservatives to see the scope of PROC’s study and its witness list further expanded in light of the recent reporting and increasing concerns about the Liberal government’s transparency surrounding potential foreign meddling.

Given the highly sensitive national security information underpinning the issue, officials’ testimonies have been mostly light in detail or specifics, citing obligations to protect classified information.

Various witnesses over the last two PROC hearings were frank in stating that the information they’d be able to provide at a public inquiry would not be any different than what they have been able to share so far.

While insisting the Liberals take the issue of interference seriously, Trudeau has resisted the calls for an independent public inquiry, pointing to a host of existing bodies and authorities, including PROC and the top-secret and multi-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP).

“For the prime minister to say that he doesn’t believe a national public inquiry is warranted, I would have to profoundly disagree,” Julian said, expressing hope that the probe go beyond the “serious allegations” of alleged Beijing interference to consider other foreign actors’ efforts, such as Russia’s disinformation campaigns.

“These attacks affect our political environment and choices every day, not just during election periods,” he said.

Differing views have emerged among Canada’s intelligence community on whether an independent public inquiry or an NSICOP probe would be best to get to the bottom of the various reports, in an effort to fully assess the foreign meddling allegations and any impact on democratic institutions, and to reassure Canadians’ confidence in the integrity of this country’s electoral system.

On Wednesday, Trudeau’s National Security and Intelligence Adviser Jody Thomas told the committee that the parliamentarians who comprise NSICOP would be better suited to get to the bottom of the various reports.

Thomas said that because officials can be “absolutely transparent” with the MPs and senators who make up that committee, since they have been cleared to see the top-secret information, that would allow them to fully assess the foreign meddling allegations and any potential impact on Canada’s democratic institutions.

On Thursday, deputy minister of international trade Rob Stewart echoed this, confirming that he was unable to deliver certain information given the nature of it, but that information could be shared with NSICOP.

“They are able to receive classified material. They’d be able to receive all of it,” he said in response to a question from Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen, who alleged that: “This just all politics for the Conservatives.”

Suggesting that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his party do not care about how long an inquiry could take, or that another election could come and go before its work would conclude, Gerretsen claimed all that the Official Opposition cares about is “getting the little gotcha soundbite moments that happen to come along in the process of the inquiry.”

“If you really want to do this genuinely, and in a non-partisan way, you would listen to the experts,” Gerretsen said. 

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