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Pro-China counter-protesters cast shadows on a Chinese flag as they shout at Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters holding a rally, in Vancouver, on Aug. 17, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A strong majority of Canadians favour a registry of foreign agents, similar to ones in Australia and the United States, to shed light on Canadian citizens paid to influence Canada’s political process on behalf of countries such as China or Russia.

A public-opinion survey by Nanos Research found that 88 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support a foreign-influence registry. Only 7 per cent of those surveyed oppose or somewhat oppose having lawyers, lobbyists and retired politicians register when they take on paid roles for foreign governments and companies linked to these countries.

Ottawa is grappling with public warnings about foreign influence and interference campaigns from China. The Nanos poll, conducted Dec. 19-22 for The Globe and Mail, is a dual-frame hybrid telephone and online random survey that is accurate to within 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

“Transparency in terms of these kinds of foreign interests and also transparency in terms of Canadians who are working for the foreign interests is fair game,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “The reality is that if you are afraid to report that you have been working for a foreign country or a foreign organization, perhaps that should be a red flag.”

In early December, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Ottawa is preparing to consult Canadians on the possible creation of a foreign-agent registry as a means of preventing outside interference in Canadian affairs. He did not give a time frame for when the consultations would begin.

The government made a similar promise in February, 2021 when Robert Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, told the House of Commons that federal officials are studying measures set up by Canberra and Washington.

Mr. Nanos said it would be a mistake if the Liberals continue to prolong what Canadians believe is a necessary tool to provide transparency involving those who work for the interests of foreign governments.

“If they kick the can on this and we find out that there are issues or potential risks in Canada, there will be a political price to pay,” he said.

In late 2018, Australia enacted the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, in response to concerns about China’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 the countries.

Registrable activities include not only lobbying government but also communication campaigns and disbursement of money or other items of value. In addition, the Australian registry targets people who are using Beijing’s talking points on, for example, the South China Sea, or student groups acting at the direction of the Chinese consulate and former politicians and public servants who appear on TV but are delivering a Chinese line and getting paid for it.

The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act is much older and requires “agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities” to disclose their actions.

Britain recently introduced legislation to create the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme as a means of compelling people acting for foreign interests to declare political-influence activity or face criminal penalties.

Opposition parties in Canada and other 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 registry.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, has long been a prominent voice advocating for such a registry, which he said should include fines and penalties.

“China in particular uses proxies, including politicians, in foreign countries to deliver its talking points and launder its illicit payments,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview Monday. “Canadians need to know who’s pulling the strings and making the payments.”

Critics of the idea have said Canada’s lobbying registry, election laws and conflict-of-interest legislation are adequate to capture foreign influence.

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 arrested in Canada at the request of the United States.

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.

Some notable Canadians who have worked for Chinese interests include former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who was hired by Huawei to offer advice on the Meng case and the Chinese telecom’s efforts to sell its 5G gear in Canada. Former Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch once sat on the board of state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC).