When the word came that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was going to make an announcement about foreign interference in Canadian elections, speculation mounted about what new thing this would be.
The answer was that there wasn’t much new, except for an unnamed new person, in the unfamiliar new role of “special rapporteur,” who would be empowered to recommend what should be done next. Including whether there should be an inquiry.
Make no mistake, this was a scrambling stall tactic, a way to hold off the critics baying for a public inquiry into Beijing’s interference in Canada’s elections. Those critics include the NDP, Mr. Trudeau’s partners in a parliamentary alliance that keeps his minority government in power.
And you know it’s a scramble when the Prime Minister strides into a news conference belatedly to tell us that in the coming days he will appoint an independent, eminent Canadian whom he can’t identify right now but, don’t worry, there are lots of folks like that in Canada.
The rest of the stuff Mr. Trudeau announced, such as reviews by bodies known as NSICOP and NSIRA, were already in the realm of business-as-usual, and already rejected by opposition parliamentarians as not transparent enough.
NSICOP, for example, is a committee of parliamentarians but not a parliamentary committee – it is a body that reports to the executive, sworn to secrecy and under the security rules set by the government.
We were told that Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino is tasked with launching consultations on creating a foreign-agent registry, which is a good thing and, as it turns out, something the government had already announced in December.
In fact, the first 10 minutes of Mr. Trudeau’s news conference was an exercise in running over old news about what the government has done in the past about foreign interference, or national security, or oversight of national security, before getting to the appointment to come of an unnamed person.
But let’s not miss the thing that has happened here: Mr. Trudeau made a half turn.
Under political pressure to call an inquiry, he has promised to name someone with the power to call for a public inquiry. Or not.
There’s no denying it is a stall tactic, one that puts off the decision on an inquiry until later, and buys the besieged Liberal government time. It also puts the decision into the hands of someone else, so that Mr. Trudeau can insulate himself from criticism about the choice.
And it is absolutely impossible to say whether any of that is worth anything until we see how independent and eminent this independent, eminent Canadian is, whether they are inclined to secrecy or transparency, and what questions they are mandated to answer.
We can only hope that, in the scramble to shut down critics, Mr. Trudeau’s team has accidentally come up with a plan with merit.
A really incisive special rapporteur could recommend an inquiry with public hearings and private investigation that, if designed well, could quickly provide some answers.
And while everything about foreign interference in elections is worth investigating, the answers Canadians need right now revolve around Beijing’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections: How extensive was it? What credible information did the government have? Did Mr. Trudeau’s government ignore warnings? What was done about it?
Reports in The Globe and Mail that Chinese diplomats sought to help the Liberals to another minority government in 2021, and helped orchestrate illegal donations and election volunteers, have raised more than enough serious questions. The answers – sometimes understandably – have been too vague.
Even Mr. Trudeau’s NDP allies called for an inquiry, and the party’s leader, Jagmeet Singh, insisted it had to provide transparency. At that point, Mr. Trudeau could not afford to keep responding with a flat refusal.
It is true, as Mr. Trudeau said Monday, that there should be a non-partisan probe. For starters, that’s the only way to provide any credibility, or any answers that can’t be dismissed by one party or another.
And in theory, it might be better to leave the design of that non-partisan review to someone else. That is, as long as that yet-to-be-identified appointee comes up with a plan that other parties accept. That’s leaving a whole lot of hot potato in the hands of Eminent Canadian X, but the PM had to offload it.