The Bloc Québécois joined the Conservatives in criticizing a deal between the Liberals and NDP on the Winnipeg lab documents that would circumvent parliamentary committees and give the records instead to a group of MPs under parameters drawn up by the government.
Bloc House Leader Alain Therrien on Thursday accused the minority Liberal government of using its confidence agreement with the NDP to create “a parallel Parliament with its own rules.”
At the centre of this controversy are still-secret documents that could shed light on the firings of two infectious-disease scientists at Canada’s high-security microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg.
The Liberal government refused to hand over unredacted versions of these records to a Commons committee last year, citing national security and relations with allies. This triggered a parliamentary showdown last June that led opposition parties, including the NDP, voting to declare the government in contempt of Parliament for denying the Commons its right to compel the production of documents. The government went to court to try to stop their release before abandoning this legal route once Parliament was dissolved for the 2021 election campaign.
Now, the Liberals are proposing handing the documents over to a select number of members of Parliament with a panel of retired judges to oversee things. This committee would not be a committee of Parliament, which means it would not have the delegated authority and investigative powers of the House of Commons.
The NDP announced Wednesday it would participate in this committee, but the Conservatives are refusing to join, saying they want the documents to go to a parliamentary committee. Under a proposal backed by all opposition parties last June, the records would go to the parliamentary law clerk to review the documents and, before making them public, redact information that could be injurious to national security or a continuing criminal investigation.
Under the Liberal plan, a panel of three retired judges selected by all parties would decide what information could be made public. The Liberals say an ad hoc group of Liberal and NDP MPs will review the records with or without the co-operation of the Conservatives, who are the Official Opposition.
Mr. Therrien said the Liberals should respect the motion passed in the Commons last June by all opposition parties. “But instead of obeying the House, the Liberals are using their deal with the NDP to create their own committee and their own rules and their own report with their own conclusions – and all of that without getting the agreement of the two main opposition parties,” he told the Commons.
Bloc spokesman Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous said although the party objects to the Liberal proposal, it remains undecided on whether to participate in the committee. “We’re still evaluating this,” he said.
Liberal Government House Leader Mark Holland has promised the ad hoc committee will have full access to all national security documents that explain why Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in January, 2021.
The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called in to investigate. Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, and Mr. Cheng were dismissed in January, 2021.
Mark Kennedy, director of communications for Mr. Holland, defended the Liberal proposal, saying the government “has an obligation to protect Canadians from the damage that could ensue if certain information – such as details connected to national security – become public.
“The Conservatives want to give themselves, as opposition politicians on a parliamentary committee, the power to decide which documents are publicly released,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“That is simply the wrong way to deal with this issue.”
He notes that the same arrangement – outside of parliamentary committees – was used in 2010 by the former Conservative government to give MPs access to documents on Afghan detainees. A panel of judges oversaw it.
“It should be the decision of an independent panel of former judges who will ensure that national security interests – not partisan interests – are maintained.”
The Globe and Mail reported last year that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists on national security grounds. The Globe also reported that seven scientists in the special pathogens unit at the Winnipeg lab, including Dr. Qiu and her husband, conducted experiments and co-authored six studies on infectious diseases, such as Ebola, with Chinese military researchers. As well, the Globe reported the RCMP are investigating whether the dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China.
The NDP cut a deal in March to prop up the Liberal minority government on budget and confidence matters, and this week’s agreement on the Winnipeg lab documents committee broadens the scope of co-operation between the two parties.
On Thursday, the Conservatives interrupted unrelated testimony at the House of Commons foreign affairs committee to press for a vote on their alternative proposal to deliver the documents to the committee, with the law clerk overseeing it. The NDP voted with the governing Liberals to defeat the motion 6-5. The Bloc voted in favour of the Conservative motion.
NDP foreign affairs’ critic Heather McPherson said earlier this week her party agreed to the Liberal proposal in order to break “a log jam” over the Winnipeg lab documents.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis disputed that Thursday. “There is no log jam here,” he said. “It’s a matter of the government having refused to adhere to their constitutional obligations.”
Parliamentarians shouldn’t tell judges how to do their job and judges shouldn’t presume to replace the functioning of Parliamentary committees, he said.
“It’s a great and ancient right of Parliamentarians to request any documents and to use them in the exercise of their functions.”
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