There’s no inquiry into Chinese foreign interference, so the federal New Democrats have decided to keep walking on a tightrope between criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and supporting his government.
So far, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh doesn’t seem to feel like his party is teetering on a high wire. They just don’t know if and when that will change.
David Johnston’s report on foreign interference means the New Democrats have another high-profile issue on which they oppose the Liberals while they remain in a parliamentary alliance that keeps Mr. Trudeau in power.
As Mr. Trudeau’s “special rapporteur” on foreign interference, Mr. Johnston recommended against calling an inquiry, and Mr. Trudeau agreed. But the NDP had already voted for an inquiry. And Mr. Singh is back in the position of continuing to demand accountability while propping up Mr. Trudeau.
That’s uncomfortable for the NDP, and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre knows it. He essentially argued that the NDP’s unwillingness to defeat the Liberal minority government is the reason Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have to hold an inquiry. Mr. Poilievre called Mr. Singh “Justin Trudeau’s assistant in this cover-up.”
That’s not going to change the NDP’s immediate plans. They’re not pulling out from the confidence-and-supply agreement they signed with the Liberal government. The deal spares them from a snap election they don’t want and allows New Democrats to claim they are delivering some of their own policies to Canadians.
But these kinds of things – being forced to walk a political tightrope between opposing and supporting Mr. Trudeau – will gradually weaken the Liberal-NDP deal.
In addition to the hard-and-fast elements of the agreement – which call for the Liberals to implement some New Democratic policy measures in return for NDP support in the Commons on budget votes and confidence motions – there’s a no-surprises principle that is supposed to keep the NDP playing nice in Parliament.
The Liberals expect the New Democrats to not join the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois in tactics to embarrass them in parliamentary committees or motions. But when Mr. Trudeau failed to provide a satisfying response to all the allegations of Chinese foreign interference, the NDP in March called for a public inquiry.
Mr. Singh’s advisers were annoyed it had come to that. They felt Mr. Trudeau had mishandled the questions and stonewalled calls for an inquiry, so they had to oppose him. There had been other recent cases where the New Democrats felt they’d been forced to split with the Liberals because they bobbled the politics – notably in December, when the NDP withdrew its support for Liberal gun measures after a backlash.
Now, with Mr. Johnston’s report, New Democrats are back walking a tightrope. The NDP still supports an inquiry, but Mr. Singh, alone among opposition leaders, has agreed to seek a security clearance and receive the top-secret information that Mr. Johnston relied upon for his report.
At the moment, the NDP doesn’t seem to be paying a political price. The party is gaining in opinion polls, not falling. Polls indicate that a majority of people want an inquiry, but feedback from party supporters suggests they aren’t really intensely engaged in the issue, because other areas such as housing and health care are seen as so pressing.
But no one knows if foreign interference will start to raise deeper public concern, especially if there are more revelations in news reports.
Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP for Timmins-James Bay, said his constituents aren’t raising it with him very much.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not important,” he said. “I think what’s disconcerting for people is the larger sense of political failure.”
He said he thinks ordinary Canadians feel all sides of politics have failed on this. Mr. Trudeau failed to provide reassurance to the public that he is dealing with foreign interference, he said, while Mr. Poilievre turned to “poison politics” by alleging that Mr. Trudeau was complicit in Chinese foreign interference because it helped Liberals.
“Nobody believes that,” Mr. Angus said.
The public sees an “Ottawa gong show” and might appreciate that the NDP isn’t getting caught up in it, he said. There certainly is no desire for an election over it, he added: “People would be pretty freakin’ pissed if an election was called now.”
That’s now. But New Democrats know their parliamentary alliance with the Liberals will fall apart someday, and it will be judged in retrospect. They just don’t know yet if this issue will bring that day closer.