The Canadian government is “actively considering” creating a registry of foreign agents similar to ones in Australia and the United States in order to shed light on individuals paid to influence the country’s political process on behalf of other states.
This comes as Canada is grappling with public warnings about foreign influence and interference campaigns from authoritarian governments in China and Russia, among others.
Robert Oliphant, Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, told the House of Commons late Tuesday that federal officials are studying measures set up by Canberra and Washington.
“The government is focused on protecting Canadian democracy from foreign influence, and a registry of foreign agent is something that we are actively considering,” Mr. Oliphant said. “We are aware that some of our allies, namely, the United States and Australia, already have foreign agent registries in place and we are studying that. We want to make sure that we have a Canadian solution for a Canadian problem.”
In late 2018, Australia enacted a “Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme,” a response to concerns about the Chinese government’s influence on the country’s politics. Australians are required to register work they are doing on behalf of foreign governments and foreign state-owned enterprises as well as individuals or political organizations affiliated with countries. Registrable activities include not only lobbying government but communication campaigns and disbursement of money or other items of value.
The United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is much older and requires “agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities” to disclose their actions.
Opposition parties in Canada and critics of the Chinese Communist Party, including the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, have called on the Liberal government to set up a similar register for former politicians and public servants who take on paid roles for foreign governments and companies linked to these states.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, has been a prominent voice calling for such a registry.
Critics of the idea have said Canada’s lobbying registry, election laws and conflict of interest legislation are adequate to capture foreign influence. But Mr. Mulroney said the registry built by Australia goes far beyond mere lobbying.
“It’s people who are communicating on behalf of a foreign principal. It can include using a foreign government’s talking points on the South China Sea or student groups acting at the direction of the Chinese consulate or former public office holders who appear on CBC but are delivering a Chinese line and getting paid for it,” Mr. Mulroney said.
He said he wants to see a registry that makes rules especially onerous for former public officials.
“It has to come with a registry that has real teeth for former public office holders. It extends the requirement for transparency to 15 years for most public holders but to a lifetime for senior people like ministers and prime ministers. What [Australia is] saying if you benefited and had the honour of serving the country, your loyalty in this respect should last a lifetime,” Mr. Mulroney said.
John McCallum, the former Liberal cabinet minister and ambassador to China, argued against a registry when testifying before a Commons committee in November, 2020.
Mr. McCallum was fired in 2019 after repeatedly speaking in support of the release of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive accused of fraud in the United States and arrested in Canada, where she is in the midst of extradition hearings.
The former envoy, who now represents Chinese clients and works as a senior adviser for the law firm McMillan, told the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations that he would comply with such a law – but questioned its usefulness.
“Right now the advice I give to Chinese companies is advice that they are seeking to invest in Canada and create jobs in Canada, but they are already subject to all the restrictions of the Investment Canada Act and also other laws of Canada. … I am just not sure that this additional information would be useful to the government,” he said.
Garnett Genuis, the Conservative critic for human rights, said that promises of “active consideration” have been used by the Liberal government to delay or avoid taking action. He said, however, it indicates the government, through public opinion polls, is detecting significant public concern. “It demonstrates the pressure they are feeling.”
Guy Saint Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the registry is necessary, noting that former Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch sat on the board of stated controlled CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corp.) while former Quebec premier Jean Charest was hired by Huawei Technologies Canada to offer advice on the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou and the Chinese telecom’s efforts to sell its 5G gear in Canada.
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