The Liberal government has offered a deal that would end a parliamentary stand-off over its eight-month refusal to release secret documents related to the firing of two scientists from Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory.
Government House Leader Mark Holland told the House of Commons late on Thursday that the federal cabinet is prepared to turn over all the documents to a special committee of MPs from the Liberal, Conservative, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic parties. A panel of three former senior judges would settle any dispute about whether to make the records public.
“We believe this proposal constitutes a good-faith effort by the government to resolve this matter responsibly,” Mr. Holland said. “It recognizes the role of the House of Commons to do its work and it also recognizes the government’s obligation to protect Canadians from the harm that could occur from the release of sensitive national security information.”
Federal opposition parties have attempted to resurrect an order of the House of Commons from the previous Parliament that required the government to disclose records that could shed light on why Ottawa expelled and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
More than 250 pages of records have been withheld in their entirety from MPs, and hundreds of others have been partly censored. They also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Dr. Qiu.
The government took Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to court in June, in an unprecedented move, to prevent the release of the documents. When Parliament returned last month, the opposition parties asked the Speaker to rule on a point of privilege and find the government in contempt of Parliament for attempting to use the courts to challenge the House’s authority to order the documents released.
The Decibel: Why were two scientists fired from a Winnipeg virus lab?
During the campaign for the fall election, the government withdrew the court challenge. If the Speaker found a prima facie case of privilege, then the Conservatives, backed by the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green parties, had planned to support a motion to have a warrant issued for the documents. The House of Commons’ sergeant-at-arms would execute the warrant.
Last month, Mr. Holland had said the opposition parties would need to start all over again in the new Parliament by adopting another motion to compel the release of the documents - a delaying tactic that could take months of debate.
On Thursday, Mr. Holland reversed himself.
Mr. Holland said the ad hoc committee would include one member from each party and an alternate. The MPs would have to undergo a thorough security check and read the documents in a secure facility. They would be assisted by what Mr. Holland called “security-cleared, non-partisan public servants.”
Mr. Holland said MPs on the committee would be provided with redacted and unredacted versions of the documents. The committee members would choose the panel of three former senior judges to act as arbiters in any disputes about what can be disclosed to Parliament and the public.
“The panel of arbiters agreed upon by all parties would make a binding determination regarding how that information could be made available to Members of Parliament and to the public, without compromising national security, national defence or international relations,” he said. “This could occur by redactions, writing of summaries or a full or partial release of the material.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said he could not immediately comment on the proposal, saying he needed time to review it with colleagues.
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said in a statement that the Liberals have demonstrated “extreme disdain for democracy, the role of Parliament and our roles as MPs” by stalling for eight months. “Too often, this Liberal government treats the House of Commons as an inconvenience,” she said.
Ms. McPherson said the NDP would not comment on the proposal before reviewing it carefully “to make sure it strikes the right balance.”
The Liberal proposal is similar to what the Harper government established in 2010, when Parliament ordered the release of secret documents about the transfer of Taliban prisoners by Canadian soldiers to Afghan forces.
The Commons’ Canada-China Committee first ordered the Public Health Agency of Canada to turn over all documents related to the firing of the two scientists on March 31.
The government has warned that disclosure of information in the documents could jeopardize national security, and in the June, 2021, court filing said it could be “injurious to international relations or national defence or national security.”
The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP were called to investigate. They were dismissed in January, 2021.
The opposition parties have said they suspect the government is hiding behind national security to avoid revealing politically embarrassing information.
They noted the government initially claimed the documents could not be released for privacy reasons, but then suddenly raised the national security issue.
The Globe has reported that the RCMP are investigating whether the two dismissed scientists passed on Canadian intellectual property to China, including to the Wuhan Institute. 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.
The Globe has also reported that Dr. Qiu, who headed the vaccine development and anti-viral therapies section at the Winnipeg lab, collaborated on scientific papers with Chinese military researchers. (The Globe has reported that the RCMP have been informed the scientists have relocated to China.)
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. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information if he believes it would damage national security, national defence or international relations.
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