It was supposed to be the big moment when the Prime Minister’s chief of staff would face a grilling about Chinese interference in Canadian elections.
Instead, Katie Telford ran circles around opposition MPs so easily that, funnily enough, she proved that there has to be an inquiry.
Ms. Telford is Justin Trudeau’s top aide, the person who sits in on virtually every meeting, including intelligence briefings – and, she testified yesterday, she doesn’t hide anything from him. In short, what the PM knows is what Ms. Telford knows and vice versa.
Presumably that’s why opposition MPs had focused so aggressively on calling her before the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs, hoping to press her into spilling the beans on what the PM knew.
Liberal MPs filibustered the committee for days back in March, desperate to prevent her from being called to testify. In retrospect, you have to wonder if they were just trolling the opposition, given the ease with which Ms. Telford swatted away all inquiries.
Partly it was easy because Ms. Telford invoked the shield of national-security secrecy, declining to talk about any specific information provided to her or the Prime Minister in intelligence briefings.
She was able to say that the real experts – the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, and the Prime Minister’s national-security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas – had already testified, and she certainly could not reveal more.
But part of it was also that opposition MPs – trying to flex Watergate-style queries about what the Prime Minister knew and when he knew it – were just bad at asking questions.
Conservative MPs kept hammering away at the one specific allegation that has been denied by both the Prime Minister in public and Ms. Thomas in testimony: a Global News report from last November alleging that Chinese officials funnelled $250,000 dollars to 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election.
By now it should be clear to anyone following along that this is the one specific thing that the Trudeau government is keen to address, and deny.
In fact, Ms. Telford didn’t even have to deny it. She could stick to her assertion that she could not reveal the details of intelligence briefings, but also point to the testimony of Ms. Thomas, who told the committee that the allegation was inaccurate. Ms. Telford didn’t have to reveal anything but could still deny it. Yet Conservatives asked about it repeatedly.
Ms. Telford rebuffed all specific questions about what intelligence agencies told her, or the Prime Minister. Conversely, any general questions about when the PM was briefed about Chinese attempts to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections led to general answers that the Prime Minister had been briefed continuously on foreign interference, formally and informally, dating back before 2019. (Along with assertions that he took it very seriously.)
Between generalities and the specifics of intelligence briefings, answerable questions went unasked. No one asked if the Prime Minister had ever been informed that an MP or Liberal candidate was a security risk. Did he know about Beijing’s efforts to aid or defeat specific candidates? Was he told that Chinese diplomats were breaking Canadian election laws?
What did we learn from all this? “A bit more. Not much,” said Bloc Québécois MP Christine Normandin.
Not much is right. It’s pretty clear that a parliamentary committee is not going to be the forum for learning more.
Neither the opposition’s questions nor the government’s answers are moving us forward on critical questions: Did Mr. Trudeau ignore credible warnings about Beijing’s meddling in Canadian elections, and do too little to respond?
Even Ms. Telford acknowledged that the restrictions on what can be said about intelligence can be frustrating. She noted that former governor-general David Johnston has been given the task of determining the best way to review these matters and will report within six weeks.
Ms. Normandin, the Bloc MP, conceded that even an inquiry won’t be able to completely air intelligence details in public. But she noted that a non-partisan commissioner could at least provide Canadians with a disinterested assessment.
And that’s what Ms. Telford’s appearance proved: that Canadians are going to need some other forum, and someone else, to answer these questions. Bring on the inquiry.