If Canadians hoped the launch of Ottawa’s public inquiry into foreign election interference would bring clarity to the issue, this week put paid to any such optimism.
On Monday, Marie-Josée Hogue, the judge heading the inquiry, issued a ruling on who will have full standing to question witnesses and examine confidential evidence during the inquiry’s critical first stage.
That’s when the inquiry will look at the impact of foreign interference on the federal elections of 2019 and 2021, and evaluate the government’s response to intelligence about meddling designed to boost Liberal chances in some ridings.
Bizarrely, Justice Hogue has seen fit not to give full standing to the Conservative Party and the NDP, instead limiting them to intervenor standing in the “factual phase” of the inquiry. (She gave them full standing for the later “policy phase.”)
That means that, while members of the Liberal government are testifying, representatives of the other two main parties won’t be allowed to question them, or see any relevant evidence that hasn’t been made public.
Justice Hogue also warned the Conservatives and the NDP that she “will not permit the inquiry to become a platform for partisan debate,” and reminded them both that she can revoke their limited standing at any time if they step out of line.
The judge is not wrong to worry. Vaudevillian partisanship is all the rage in this unserious age of politics, and she cannot let her inquiry descend into, as she put it, “a platform for partisan talking points, grandstanding or scorekeeping.”
But her decision is troubling for two reasons: The Liberal government gave itself full standing when it set the terms of reference for the inquiry, giving it a leg up on the opposition parties; and her warning about partisanship is presumptive.
The government will be able to question witnesses who may be members of, or have ties to, the opposition parties, while those parties with their lesser standing will not have the same right when it comes to government witnesses – including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his cabinet members and his staff.
Now, if this inquiry had been created when it should have been, this might be less problematic. But the entire country has witnessed the partisan lengths Mr. Trudeau will go to to avoid answering three key questions. What did the government know, when did it know it, and what did it do about it?
When news of Chinese interference favouring the Liberals in a handful of ridings in the 2019 and 2021 elections came to light early this year, Mr. Trudeau refused to call an inquiry.
He instead tried to pass off a “special rapporteur” with deep Liberal ties as an acceptable alternative. When that collapsed, he again ducked and dodged, only announcing the inquiry in September when he was under tremendous political and public pressure to do so.
Mr. Trudeau has to answer questions about why he delayed the inquiry, and why his government doesn’t appear to have responded forcefully to allegations of meddling that were helpful to his party.
Will the inquiry’s counsel ask these highly charged questions? The inquiry has the power to subpoena witnesses, who have to testify under oath. The public should give it the benefit of the doubt and only pass judgment on its credibility and effectiveness once the hearings are under way.
But that onus is now squarely on the commission, which must ensure that Canadians have full and convincing answers to those three critical questions. If it fails in that task, Canadians will be worse off than if there had never been an inquiry at all.
The best way to avoid such failure is to give the Conservatives and the NDP full standing. Opposition parties have as big a stake in the security of Canada’s elections as the government of the day does. And the Conservatives have perhaps the biggest interest of all, since they were the targets of the meddling, and one of their MPs, Michael Chong, was the victim of an intimidation campaign by Beijing.
Giving the opposition parties full standing would ensure that the government gets asked the right questions. If they resort to cartoonish grandstanding, let the public judge them on it, but Justice Hogue should not have presupposed that they might, or argued they don’t have a sufficient stake in the inquiry to merit full standing.
They do, and for the sake of the public’s trust they need to be allowed to ask uncomfortable questions.