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The Prime Minister seemed oddly untroubled by the fact that CSIS had uncovered illegal activities coordinated by Beijing.Riley Smith/The Canadian Press

In the space of a week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mysteriously ambivalent response to the revelation that Chinese operatives meddled in the 2021 general election has gone from bad to worse.

When The Globe and Mail broke the news last Friday about CSIS intelligence reports outlining the scope of the interference, Mr. Trudeau’s message was that any Chinese meddling that occurred didn’t affect the outcome of the election, and Canadians could rest assured their democracy was safe.

The Prime Minister seemed oddly untroubled by the fact that CSIS had uncovered illegal activities co-ordinated by Beijing. These included operatives giving undeclared cash donations to preferred political campaigns, co-operative businesses hiring international Chinese students who then volunteered in campaigns, and campaigns refunding donors the difference between the amount they gave and the amount returned to them as a tax refund.

Given that CSIS says the point of China’s interference was to help bring about the Liberals’ re-election, and to defeat Conservative Party candidates deemed a threat to Beijing’s interests, the lack of urgency in Mr. Trudeau’s response left itself open to interpretation.

That only got worse this week, when the Liberals tried to twist valid Conservative criticism of the government’s handling of the matter into an attack on Canada’s democratic institutions.

“This is the same Trump-type tactics to question election results moving forward,” Jennifer O’Connell, parliamentary secretary to the minister of intergovernmental affairs, told the standing committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

The committee, which was investigating Chinese interference in the 2019 election, is now looking into interference in 2021. That prompted Mr. Trudeau to say that any Conservative attempt to make the issue a partisan one would play into hands of foreign actors like Russia and China that are trying to undermine Canadians’ faith in democracy.

“It’s not about one party versus another,” he said.

Except that it’s always about one party versus for another for Mr. Trudeau, and his attempt to demonize political opponents who criticize his handling of Chinese election meddling is so typical of that.

No one is questioning the fact that Chinese meddling did not change who formed government in 2019 and 2021.

So if the Liberals insist on raising the spectre of Donald Trump, then it has to be said that the only people for whom the Trumpist shoe fits are in the party that may have benefitted from foreign election interference in the last two elections, and which seems not too overly concerned that it took place.

The possibility of co-ordinated Chinese interference has been known since the 2019 election. Credible evidence emerged in its wake that China targeted a sitting Conservative MP who had tabled a private members bill to created a foreign-agent registry, something Beijing didn’t want to see happen. The MP was defeated by his Liberal opponent.

Last November, it came to light that Mr. Trudeau was briefed in January, 2022 about a Chinese campaign of election interference in 2019 in the Greater Toronto Area, but sat on the information. And now we know an even more sophisticated campaign of Chinese interference occurred in 2021.

Mr. Trudeau has had every opportunity to be forthright about Beijing’s meddling. When the latest news broke last week, he could have promised a tough response that included the expulsion of Chinese diplomats and a call for investigations into the fraud CSIS says took place in some ridings. And he could have immediately announced legislation to create a much-needed foreign-agent registry.

Instead, he and his acolytes have played the Trump card and said that opposition MPs who raise questions about his government’s handling of this grave matter will be playing into the hands of malevolent foreign actors.

As well, the Liberals and their allies in the NDP have limited the scope of the standing committee’s investigation into the 2021 interference by voting down a motion calling on the government to provide it with relevant documents.

Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals had the chance to rise up in defence of Canada’s electoral system. Instead, they’ve raised serious doubts about their credibility on the issue. If they want to restore it, they need to call an independent public inquiry into Chinese election interference.

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