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Politics Former envoy David Mulroney says PMO asked him to clear public comments on China with Ottawa

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney speaks during a symposium on Canada-China relations in Toronto in May, 2019.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

The Prime Minister’s Office asked former Canadian diplomat David Mulroney to check with the foreign affairs ministry before he makes future public statements on Ottawa’s China policy, citing the “election environment," the ex-envoy says.

The request came in a telephone call from a senior Global Affairs Canada official last Friday.

Mr. Mulroney, who was ambassador to Beijing between 2009 and 2012, said he received a call from Paul Thoppil, assistant deputy minister for Asia-Pacific at Global Affairs, who informed him he was passing on the request from the Prime Minister’s Office.

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The former envoy, who spent his career in the foreign service, is frequently approached by journalists to comment for stories, even more so as relations between Canada and China have deteriorated since Ottawa arrested a senior executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. last December on an extradition request from the United States.

He has argued forcefully for a major rethink of Canada’s approach to China since the crisis began, arguing Canada must not return to business as usual.

In recent weeks, he has also cautioned against non-urgent business travel to China and suggested Canadian tourists avoid “a repressive detention state.” He said Mr. Thoppil cited this as being among the reasons for the call.

Mr. Thoppil told Mr. Mulroney last Friday it was important for Canada to speak with one voice these days, because of frayed relations with Beijing, but also the October federal election.

“In this time, he said, of high tension and in an election environment, we all need to be very, very careful,” Mr. Mulroney recounted. “He said … ‘I’ve been asked by PMO: before you comment on aspects of China policy, it would be good if you called in and got the latest from us on what we’re doing.’”

Mr. Mulroney said the request made him very uncomfortable and he refused to comply. He said he felt that implicit in what Ottawa was asking was the premise he would revise or temper his comments after running them by the ministry.

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“I am deeply concerned about the way foreign policy is being managed, and don't wish to be silenced or co-opted,” Mr. Mulroney said.

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He added any effort to discourage Canadians with expertise in foreign relations from speaking freely is “fundamentally an undemocratic idea.”

The Globe and Mail asked Mr. Thoppil for comment on Tuesday, and the query was forwarded to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office.

The government did not deny the call took place, or suggest Mr. Mulroney had mischaracterized it.

However, Ms. Freeland’s office and the Prime Minister’s Office distanced themselves from what the former envoy says he was told.

“Our office would not have directed the public service to say those things to a former ambassador,” said Cameron Ahmad, director of communications to the Prime Minister.

Adam Austen, press secretary for Ms. Freeland, echoed this, saying: “Neither the Prime Minister’s office nor the Foreign Minister’s office would ever attempt to prevent any former Canadian diplomat from speaking freely and publicly."

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The two spokesmen declined to explain on the record why a Global Affairs official would ask Mr. Mulroney to run statements by the department before commenting publicly, why Mr. Thoppil said he was passing on a request from the PMO or why the senior bureaucrat would cite the “election environment."

Shortly after Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, China seized two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, in what analysts including Mr. Mulroney have called “hostage diplomacy.”

During the call last Friday, Mr. Mulroney had asked Mr. Thoppil for examples of his statements that had concerned Ottawa. The Global Affairs official, he said, cited public comments that Canadians should avoid non-essential travel to China, which clash with what Canada’s embassy in Beijing says.

“[Mr. Thoppil] said, ‘Well, we were surprised you took that negative tone on travel to China and it runs counter to what the embassy is advising – [which] is engagement,'” Mr. Mulroney recounted of the July 19 call. “He said your comments can make it harder for us to deliver our China policy."

The Globe asked the PMO and Global Affairs why they would be unhappy with Mr. Mulroney’s comments about travel to China. Mr. Austen from Ms. Freeland’s office replied that it’s up to Canadians to decide whether to go, but “the federal government is the only source of official travel advice for Canadians.” Since January, 2019, he noted, Ottawa has advised a “high degree of caution if travelling to China.”

Mr. Mulroney said Mr. Thoppil did not appear to relish acting for the PMO, and repeated several times that he had been instructed to convey the request to run statements past Global Affairs. “He seemed very embarrassed at having to deliver this message to me.”

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Mr. Mulroney has disagreed in recent weeks with travel advice from another former ambassador to China, John McCallum, who sparked controversy by telling the South China Morning Post that he cautioned Beijing not to punish Canada any further over Ms. Meng’s arrest because the economic pain could reduce support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and bring to power the Conservatives “who are much less friendly to China.”

In the same interview, Mr. McCallum, a long-time Liberal cabinet minister, also urged Canadian government officials and business leaders to keep up relationship-building visits to China in preparation for ties to improve.

Mr. Mulroney at the time called this recommendation irresponsible, saying only those with urgent business should go to China.

It appears, he said, that Global Affairs is concerned that his public statements are clashing with Ottawa’s efforts to keep Canadians engaged with China.

He said Mr. Thoppil, trying to make the point about avoiding discordant messaging, pointed to an interview that Japan’s ambassador to Canada, Kimihiro Ishikane, gave to CBC Radio about the recovery of Japan and China’s relationship after a dispute over islands in the East China Sea. “Paul said the reason for this that is that they’ve had a unified and consistent message coming out of Japan.”

Mr. Mulroney said he agrees that unified and consistent messaging from governments is important. But he said “that advice applies more clearly to the confusing cacophony of views coming out of the Liberal Party itself, including discordant and very public advice from people like Mr. McCallum and former prime minister Jean Chrétien.” Last month, The Globe reported Mr. Chrétien was floating the proposal that Canada should drop extradition proceedings against Ms. Meng to get China to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and end punitive measures against Canada.

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“The PMO should be more concerned about what high-placed Liberals are saying than about trying to stifle or intimidate independent China watchers like me,” Mr. Mulroney said.

Editor’s note: An earlier headline on this story stated that the Prime Minister's Office asked former ambassador David Mulroney to clear his public comments with Ottawa. The headline should have attributed that statement to Mr. Mulroney.
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