The Liberal government is urging the Conservatives to reconsider their rejection of a proposal for handling secret documents on the firings of two infectious-disease scientists.
The matter led to a parliamentary showdown last June where opposition parties banded together and cited parliamentary privilege to order the government to release records on the matter.
The Liberals would not release the documents to the House of Commons. Instead, before Christmas, they proposed turning over the records to a special all-party committee of MPs and leave it to three retired judges to decide what could be made public.
Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole has already rejected the proposal, saying he wants the Liberals to instead stick with a plan they first floated last June to have the House of Commons law clerk vet documents to be provided to MPs. Mr. O’Toole also proposed Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault and Canada’s national-security adviser then weigh in on what information should be redacted.
On Tuesday, Government House Leader Mark Holland wrote a letter to his Conservative counterpart, Gérard Deltell, saying national-security experts are supportive of the Liberal compromise, which would give MPs access to the secret documents without compromising national security.
“Simply put, they are strongly cautioning that if the government allows the House of Commons to decide which classified documents are made public, Canada’s access to intelligence from international allies could be ‘gravely endangered,’ ” Mr. Holland wrote.
In an interview, Mr. Holland noted that the NDP and Bloc Québécois have not said no to the proposal but are waiting for the wording of a memorandum of understanding about how the committee would work. He warned that the government could proceed alone with the other parties if the Conservatives won’t reconsider.
“We will have to consider working with those who are willing to participate in a reasonable process … but that is certainly not my preference,” he said.
The experts Mr. Holland cited were former Privy Council officials Greg Fyffe and Jim Mitchell, as well as former Canadian ambassador to Washington Michael Kergin. They wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail in which they argued that the Liberal proposal was a win for the opposition parties to gain access to secret documents without harming Canada’s security and intelligence capability.
Mr. Holland said he’s also puzzled that the Conservatives would want the CSIS director and the Prime Minister’s national-security adviser to help the Commons Clerk in reviewing the documents since they actually report to Justin Trudeau – whereas the three retired judges would be selected by the committee of MPs.
“We remain ready to work in collaboration with all parties to reach an agreement on this matter,” he said.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said the party does not intend to change its position. He said the executive branch of government is accountable to the legislature and cannot ignore the will of the House of Commons to produce documents.
He said the government should comply with the order of the House last June that required the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to release the documents. That order disappeared at the dissolution of Parliament when the 2021 election campaign commenced, but the Conservatives plan to put forward a new motion to begin the process all over again.
Mr. Chong said the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc proposed a process of handling the documents that would protect national security. He accused the Liberals of ignoring this fact.
“The measures we proposed would ensure the documents would not be publicly released and the government would advise us as to what parts of the document should be publicly redacted because their public release would be injurious to national security.”
The Conservatives remain adamant that their MPs will not sit on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), an entity that is not a committee of Parliament. Mr. Chong said Mr. Trudeau “politicized NSICOP when he decided to use it as an excuse not to deliver the documents as ordered by the House.”
Mr. Trudeau has the power to prevent the committee from releasing information if he believes it would damage national security, national defence or international relations. The government previously said it would only turn over unredacted documents to NSICOP.
“There are fundamental questions about democratic norms here at stake,” Mr. Chong said.
He said during the Afghanistan war when opposition parties demanded internal records, they had not proposed any process to protect the security of the information.
The Liberals, however, said their proposal mirrors what the former Harper government set up in 2010 to screen the release of documents on Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan.
The dispute is over hundreds of pages of internal records that could shed light on why Ottawa removed and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
The Liberal government has been declining to make public unredacted versions of the documents for nine months and warned that their release could jeopardize national security.
Opposition parties, citing Parliament’s right to information, voted in June for the government to turn over the documents – and when the Liberals wouldn’t do so, they voted to declare PHAC in contempt of Parliament.
The government went to court to try to stop the release of documents but abandoned the effort when the election was called.
The documents sought also relate to the March, 2019, transfer of deadly virus samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was overseen by Ms. Qiu. The two scientists lost their security clearances in July, 2019, and the RCMP was called in to investigate. Ms. Qui and Mr. Cheng were then dismissed in January, 2021. It later emerged that a high-ranking officer in China’s People’s Liberation Army collaborated on Ebola research with Ms. Qiu.
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