Pity the poor Liberal members of the House of Commons procedure and House affairs committee. They want you to know that they would really, truly like to set up an independent public inquiry to investigate China’s meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
But, you must understand, there are just so very many stumbling blocks (at least eight) that make that fine-sounding idea impractical. In several hours of speeches – which the ungenerous might describe as semi-desperate filibustering – Liberal MPs on the committee set right anyone who may have mistakenly believed that public scrutiny would help to bolster Canadians’ shaken confidence in the inviolability of our elections. They made it clear that such a belief is charmingly simple-minded because:
A public inquiry will take too long: This seems to be a big worry for Liberal members, the concern being that a public inquiry might not wrap up its work before an election in 2025, the year the parliamentary alliance with the NDP expires.
They should be comforted by the track record of the Public Order Emergency Commission, which delivered a comprehensive report on the invocation of the Emergencies Act in under 10 months. But there is the example of the Gomery commission that probed the Liberal sponsorship scandal two decades ago, and wrapped up its effort in two years.
A two-year process would mean the findings of an independent inquiry would land a few months ahead of a 2025 campaign. That, in reality, is the nub of the Liberals’ concern.
An inquiry will be too costly: Liberal MP Ruby Sahota shared her worries about the potential expense of a probe, noting that the recent inquiry into Ottawa’s transit woes cost $14.5-million as of last November. The cost of the Gomery commission would be north of $20-million in today’s dollars.
First, we’d like to salute Ms. Sahota’s newfound devotion to fiscal prudence. But we’d like to put her mind at ease: a Gomery-like budget amounts to just over 52 cents per Canadian. That seems like a bargain price to safeguard democracy.
It’s redundant: Why would you want to go through the bother of a public inquiry, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet appoints the commissioner heading the effort, just as he proposes to do with his so-called independent special rapporteur? A fair question, but for the fact that opposition MPs on the committee have unanimously voted in favour of having an inquiry commissioner jointly agreed upon by the major parties. (The same should happen if Mr. Trudeau insists on proceeding with his rapporteur plan.)
Our allies won’t like it: What would the United States and our other Western allies think if we were to air the China meddling scandal in public? For one, they might think Canada was finally treating the national-security threat posed by Beijing with the seriousness it deserves, after years of inexplicable dithering on straightforward decisions such as excluding Huawei from next-generation wireless networks.
Expectations are inflated: The Liberals fret that Canadians have an unrealistic expectation that an independent public inquiry might provide a clear picture of what Beijing has been up to and what the federal Liberal government has done, or not done, about it. Given the lengths the government has gone so far to muddy the waters, one suspects this concern is not entirely genuine.
It’s dangerous: Similarly, the Liberals say they’re worried that a public inquiry could corrode public confidence in elections and the legitimacy of the government. The Liberals are off to a flying start on that front, with weeks of denial and deflection. An inquiry with cross-partisan support will go a long way to repairing that damage.
Canadians are ill-informed: The public is just too dumb, Ms. Sahota implied, as she rattled off findings from an unnamed opinion survey in which citizens were evidently ignorant of a public inquiry’s basics. We’ll say this: It takes a brave politician to take that stand.
Too much information is classified: This is a constant refrain from the Liberals, as well as national security officials. No sane person is asking that CSIS reveal its sources and methods. And, yes, details on Beijing’s illegal activities may be currently classified. But what is classified can be unclassified, with redactions, should the government so choose.
More to the point, the answers to the most important questions for an inquiry (or a parliamentary committee) are not classified: What did the Prime Minister know? When did he know it? And what did he do about it?