Opposition parties are calling for summer parliamentary hearings into why Canada’s foreign ministry called two former diplomats to caution them to avoid contradictory public messaging on China and why they were told this was at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Erin O’Toole, the Conservative vice-chair of the Commons committee on foreign affairs and international development, as well as Guy Caron, the NDP vice-chair, have made a formal request for the committee to be convened within five days. They want the committee to examine whether the Trudeau government applied “undue pressure” on the former envoys.
“We believe it is incumbent on the committee to study these matters and ensure that Canada’s non-partisan, public service is not being unduly exploited for political purposes,” Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Caron wrote. Their letter was also signed by Conservative MPs Ziad Aboultaif and Leona Alleslev, the other two opposition members of the committee.
This request follows reporting by The Globe and Mail.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, and a career foreign-service officer, said Global Affairs Canada, citing a request from the PMO, asked him to check with the department before he makes future public statements on Ottawa’s China policy, citing the “election environment.” Mr. Mulroney served as envoy to Beijing between 2009 and 2012.
“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.'"
The official in question was Paul Thoppil, the Department of Global Affairs’ assistant deputy minister for Asia Pacific.
Guy Saint-Jacques, another former envoy to Beijing, said he, too, received a call from Mr. Thoppil. Mr. Saint-Jacques, who was Canada’s envoy to China between 2012 and 2016, told The Globe he found the directive to be particularly odd given that it concerned an authoritarian state. “Especially having served in China and knowing how they try to control messaging there,” he said.
Mr. Saint-Jacques characterized the way the message was delivered as “a bit clumsy," adding Mr. Thoppil "wanted me to know that PMO just wanted him to relay the hope that we could all speak with one voice to support the strategy of the government.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said the tone of his conversation with Mr. Thoppil appears to have been different from what Mr. Mulroney experienced. He said he can see how Mr. Mulroney might have felt the government was asking him to clear public comments first. “In my case, I did not feel that. But I can understand that one could come to that conclusion when they say we should speak with one voice.”
The government, responding this week after Mr. Mulroney revealed the call, did not suggest the former envoy mischaracterized the contents of the conversation.
But the Prime Minister’s Office distanced itself from what the former envoy says he was told, saying it would never try to prevent a former diplomat from speaking freely.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office echoed this Friday. “As for the two former ambassadors, Minister Freeland has immense respect for both and has never and would never seek to interfere with their free and independent contribution to the public debate,” spokesman Adam Austen said.
Global Affairs said it regretted how things were communicated to Mr. Mulroney in the call from Mr. Thoppil. It also denied the department had been under instruction from the PMO to ask him to clear future comments with Ottawa.
The government declined this week 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 repeatedly told Mr. Mulroney he was passing on a request from the PMO or why the senior bureaucrat would cite the “election environment.”
Opposition MPs say they intend to move a motion calling for hearings to study “these troubling developments” next week. The motion would ask the following witnesses to appear: Ms. Freeland, Mr. Thoppil, Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Saint-Jacques and any other individuals the committee deemed relevant. The motion would call for hearings no later than Aug. 15.
The House of Commons adjourned for the summer in June and isn’t due to come back until mid-September, although that schedule will likely be pre-empted by a federal election campaign. The four opposition MPs have the ability to call a meeting of the foreign affairs committee, but the Liberals, which have a majority of seats on the committee, could vote against hearings.
Asked for comment, including whether the Liberal government would allow hearings to move forward, Ms. Freeland’s press secretary said the government would not tell MPs what to do. “This will be a decision for the members of the committee,” Mr. Austen said.