A legal battle over Ottawa’s refusal to release uncensored records regarding the firing of two federal scientists from the country’s top infectious-disease laboratory appears set to stretch beyond a possible fall election – and could be extinguished entirely if the Liberals win a majority government.
Parliament is automatically dissolved once election writs are issued and that means all parliamentary business ends, including the motion to require the government to release classified documents on the two scientists.
In June, the federal government took House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to court in an unprecedented move to prevent the release of documents to members of Parliament that could offer insight into why Ottawa expelled and then fired Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
The House of Commons communications office, acting for the Speaker, declined to say what would happen to the court case if Parliament is dissolved.
Former Commons law clerk Rob Walsh said it appears that the Liberal government is slow-walking the court proceedings in the expectation that a general election will be called in August and the party will win a majority.
The government has warned that disclosure of information in the documents could jeopardize national security, and the court filing said it could also threaten Canada’s international relations.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The investigation centres on the possibility that materials such as plasma DNA molecules, which could be used to recreate vaccines or viruses, were transferred to Chinese authorities without the approval of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
The court schedule for the dispute between the government and House of Commons is taking shape and the first hearings aren’t expected until early to mid-September. This could mean that the matter wouldn’t be resolved until after an election that could come that month.
Timelines were discussed in a July 2 case-management conference call between Federal Court of Canada Justice Catherine Kane and lawyers for Mr. Rota and the federal Attorney-General’s office.
Maxime Faille, one of the lawyers for the Speaker, said they intend to file notice of a motion to strike down the government’s lawsuit in the weeks ahead. This matter would be heard first, and the parties to the call discussed possible dates including Sept. 9, 10 and 16 and 17. They agreed to meet again Aug. 5 to firm up the schedule.
“The preliminary motion raises jurisdictional issues that are of importance to the country as a whole, certainly to Parliament and to this court,” Justice Kane said during the call.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, is expected to trigger an election campaign as early as mid-August and this would lead to the dissolution of Parliament and formally stop the House’s effort to procure the documents.
Mr. Walsh said an election call definitely affects the court action. “Dissolution will have the effect of rendering the Order of the House, and the [court] application moot because there’s no basis for it any more.”
If the Liberals win a majority, Mr. Walsh said he anticipates the Trudeau government would withdraw its court action against the Commons Speaker and Liberal MPs would block any opposition attempt to pursue the matter in the new Parliament.
“The polls look like they [Liberals] will get a majority and once they get a majority, it is history,” he said.
Mr. Walsh said former prime minister Stephen Harper did the same thing when he won a majority government in 2011. The minority Harper government was forced to set up a select committee of MPs and a panel of experts in 2010 to examine classified documents on whether Canadian soldiers knew that Taliban prisoners might be tortured when they were transferred to the Afghanistan National Army.
After Mr. Harper’s Conservatives won a majority, he did not revive the committee. “The guy who wins the majority calls the shots,” Mr. Walsh added.
For months, opposition MPs have been seeking unredacted records from PHAC that explain why Dr. Qiu and her husband were fired. The two scientists lost their security clearances and the RCMP were called into investigate, in July, 2019. They were dismissed in January of this year.
More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety and hundreds of others have been partly censored before being provided to MPs. They also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Dr. Qiu.
In June, opposition MPs outvoted the minority Liberal government to demand the documents and then later voted to declare the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to allow the release of the records. The Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs had proposed safeguards that would require the Commons law clerk to review the documents and redact information that could harm national security or a criminal investigation before making them public.
PHAC president Iain Stewart was later called before the Commons and admonished by the Speaker for his repeated refusal to provide the requested records.
The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to an entity called the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which is not a committee of Parliament. Mr. Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information to the public.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.