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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Mar. 6. Trudeau is calling on the committee of parliamentarians that reviews matters of national security and the national intelligence watchdog to independently investigate concerns about foreign interference in Canada.Sean Kilpatrick

That was a neat trick the Prime Minister pulled off Monday evening.

I don’t mean just the breathtaking change in communications strategy, on the issue that threatens to devour his government: foreign (specifically Chinese) interference in our elections. The sullen stonewalling of the last several weeks was instantly transformed into a dazzling pinwheel of apparent activity: multiple investigations, a pledge to consult on implementing a foreign agent registry, a promise to appoint a National Counter Foreign Interference Co-ordinator, a vow to start implementing some of the recommendations it had received from previous investigations, etc.

Such a strategy has obvious political benefits, from buying time to muddying the waters. But that, too, is not what I mean. The really artful part of this performance, rather, was to pose the Prime Minister as the solution to the problem, rather than the problem itself. It was as if, the Prime Minister having launched all of those multiple overlapping investigations, we were all supposed to forget that, in a serious country, he and his government would be the subject of them.

The issue, again, is not “foreign interference,” as such. We may take it as a given that our adversaries will seek to intervene in Canadian elections, as they have in other countries. The issue is not that China, according to intelligence sources, wanted the Liberals to win – though the implications are disturbing, can anyone claim to be surprised? – nor that it apparently went to some lengths to assure this, albeit with seemingly limited impact. The issue is whether it had help.

The allegations in the leaked CSIS documents are quite specific. They do not allege only that China interfered on behalf of the Liberals, but that it had domestic accomplices: not just that China was funnelling cash and manpower to favoured candidates, most of them Liberal, but that the candidates in at least some cases were knowing recipients; indeed, some campaigns were allegedly reimbursing donors for the part of their donation not covered by the federal tax credit.

Other alleged acts of interference, such as tipping the nomination in the safe Liberal riding of Don Valley North to an allegedly Beijing-favoured candidate, could not credibly have been carried out without at least somebody in the party knowing. And the whole thing was documented in report after official report, memo after urgent memo, from CSIS, from the Privy Council, from the Prime Minister’s own national security and intelligence adviser.

It is impossible – or let us say highly unlikely – that this information would not have reached cabinet, or the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Prime Minister himself. Yet nothing was done. Which is why so much is having to be done now.

But, with one possible exception, none of what the Prime Minister announced is likely to get at the question of Liberal involvement or government inactivity, in the way that, say, an independent public inquiry might.

It is all very well to ask the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to investigate, but it is neither independent nor public: appointed by the Prime Minister, reporting to the Prime Minister, its reports are subject to redaction by the Prime Minister’s Office and its members are sworn to secrecy. Given that four of its nine members are Liberal MPs, plus a New Democrat pledged to sustain the government in office, it is unlikely to rock too many boats, and if it were, the Prime Minister has had no difficulty in ignoring its recommendations in the past.

As for asking the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) to conduct a review of “how Canada’s national security agencies handled the threat of foreign interference … specifically around the flow of information from national security agencies to decision makers”: that seems to suggest the problem was with the agencies, and not the decision makers – as if it were the former’s increasingly frantic efforts to warn the latter that was the issue, and not the latter’s apparent deafness to the former.

The possible exception to this dispiriting pattern: the appointment of an “Independent Special Rapporteur” to advise the government on how to proceed further, notably on the question of whether to hold a public inquiry. Much will depend on the identity of the “eminent Canadian” the Prime Minister chooses for the job, and whether that person enjoys the trust and confidence of the opposition, and of Canadians generally. Much, too, will depend on the office’s precise mandate.

But in principle, the idea of leaving the decision on such an inquiry to an arms’-length expert, rather than the Prime Minister himself, has some merit. Tentative as it is, it’s the first win for accountability since this whole mess began.

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