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opinion

Guards in protective suits keep watch at the gate to a residential compound as COVID-19 outbreaks continue in Beijing.THOMAS PETER/Reuters

Just 10 days ago, the Government of Canada was telling us in its new Indo-Pacific strategy that it is now taking a “clear-eyed” approach to China, meaning it is wise to the dangers of a “increasingly disruptive” China. Already, we see the government has had trouble keeping its eyes open.

The RCMP, we learned in a report from Radio-Canada, bought communications-security technology from a company called Sinclair Technologies, owned by a Chinese parent company, Hytera Communications, which is accused of industrial espionage in the United States.

The response to that report from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was to note pointedly that the contract was issued by public servants, not politicians. So instead of asserting again how clear-eyed they are, Mr. Trudeau hid behind the cloak of bureaucratic invisibility.

Yet it is important not to miss the lesson in this: Being clear-eyed means making sure everyone in government has their eyes open.

That’s up to the politicians in office, and especially the Prime Minister.

Sinclair has, according to Radio-Canada’s report, been an RCMP supplier for years, but it was purchased by Hytera, partly owned by the Chinese government, in 2017. It supplied equipment to secure RCMP communications so outsiders can’t listen in, along with services that require access to the Mounties frequencies, in a relatively modest contract worth $549,637. The government said the contracting process included no security requirements.

One huge problem, whether or not there is an actual security breach, is that no one was vetting the risk. Another is how quickly the government washed its hands of the whole business by suggesting bureaucrats were responsible.

“We will have some real questions for the independent public service that signed these contracts, and we’ll make sure that this is changed going forward,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “It’s high time that happens.”

Of course, it was the public service that signed the contracts, but it is the Liberal government that sets the policies that guide the bureaucrats’ work.

“Mr. Trudeau is a bit like the kid who gets caught stealing a pack of gum and says it is the gum’s fault,” said Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet. “He’s the Prime Minister of Canada.”

The whole thing is embarrassing for the government, so embarrassing that it even prompted Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to take questions from Ottawa reporters outside the House of Commons just so he could tee off on the Liberals.

“It’s almost something that you’d expect to be out of a spy novel, but characters in a spy novel would never be that incompetent,” Mr. Poilievre said.

This isn’t simply a question of an embarrassing gaffe, however, and the problem with blaming bureaucrats isn’t just that it is bad form.

It is a reminder that dealing with the dangers of foreign interference and espionage from Beijing – and some others – requires strengthening domestic defences, and that starts with setting policies from the top.

Just 10 days ago, the Liberal government released an Indo-Pacific strategy that described China as an “increasingly disruptive global power,” and said the strategy is informed by a “clear-eyed understanding of this global China.” It said that “at the domestic level, Canada will continue to strengthen the defence of our Canadian infrastructure, democracy and Canadian citizens against foreign interference.” It called for a variety of measures to do that.

Step 1, surely, is communicating the mission. If you want to strengthen Canada’s defences, you might want to tell people across the government, including the police and civil servants, that that is their job.

Perhaps it’s fair to note that this is a new strategy, and it wasn’t yet published when the government issued an RCMP communications-security contract to a Chinese-owned company way back in – Oh, it was 2021.

Still, Mr. Trudeau is right about this: The government should at least, as he said, “change things going forward.”

This case shows that the message that Canada needs to build its domestic defences has not been spread across government departments and agencies, and that is because Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government hasn’t spread it. It has to set that policy direction, and provide policies for the public service to follow.

And it is indeed high time that happens.