Now we know CSIS reported that Chinese diplomats discussed ways to interfere in Vancouver’s mayoral election last year, and hoped to groom friendly local politicians who might one day run for higher office. But that’s just the latest.
An Ontario Conservative MPP has stepped aside from Premier Doug Ford’s caucus because of unproven allegations he aided Beijing’s election-tampering schemes. The intelligence agency reported Chinese diplomats organized illegal donations and paid volunteers for some federal candidates in the 2021 election as they hoped to help the Liberals win another minority government.
So yes, there is going to have to be an inquiry. There’s no way around that.
And it will have to be big and broad.
The question of whether the opposition parties agree that a former Gov.-General of Canada, David Johnston, can be trusted to handle the hastily fabricated role of special rapporteur should not, in the end, be more than a sidebar. His work can be easily judged. He doesn’t have a lot of credible options.
Mr. Johnston cannot seriously consider his task to be making a recommendation on whether there should or should not be a full inquiry. That has to be a given now. He can only be making recommendations on how broad that inquiry should be – and it has to be broad – or how to fit the requirement of protecting the secrecy of intelligence gathering with the necessity of telling the public what the heck is going on.
And at this point, the inquiry must deal with two sets of issues on two tracks. One is the narrow question of whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ignored credible warnings about Beijing’s meddling. The other is the broader issue of foreign interference throughout Canada’s politics.
That second set of broader issues can’t be avoided now. There are too many concerns that Canada has slumbered while Beijing interfered. And not just that: The lack of clear answers feeds hyperventilating theories that all our elections are or were rigged and no one can be trusted.
The country needs a cool-headed review.
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The interference in Vancouver’s 2022 mayoral election recounted in CSIS documents reported in The Globe and Mail should make it clear why it must have a broad scope.
The spy agency reported that China’s consul-general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, was keen to influence the race. She had been critical of then-mayor Kennedy Stewart, a former New Democrat MP, who suspended meetings with Chinese diplomats after Beijing sanctioned Canadian MP Michael Chong. The consulate warned the City of Vancouver not to declare a special relationship with the Taiwanese city, Kaohsiung. Last August, it criticized Mr. Stewart for supporting then-U. S. congressional speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.
Notice: China’s government has no reason to care about Vancouver’s municipal policies. They just don’t like a local pooh-bah who speaks out against Beijing’s line. Ms. Tong, according to CSIS, was also seeking to groom local politicians who might one day run for provincial or federal office.
It’s not clear how far those efforts went, but this is different than trying to influence a national election. It’s Beijing seeking to quash unfriendly voices and install friendly ones throughout Canada’s politics. That’s something that has to be part of an inquiry now.
Yet broad issues such as that can’t be allowed to drown out the narrower questions and have to be answered about Beijing’s interference in recent federal elections and whether Mr. Trudeau ignored credible warnings about it. An inquiry needs a two-track mandate that answers those questions first.
Mr. Johnston’s appointment as a special rapporteur was never going to be enough. That Mr. Trudeau scrambled to conjure up a new office when he was up to his eyes in political pressure to hold an inquiry meant that Mr. Johnston could never be the arbiter of these questions.
That the opposition can point to Mr. Johnston’s family being friendly with Mr. Trudeau and has had links with the non-profit Trudeau Foundation just confirm that. At best, he can provide an interim review and lead Mr. Trudeau to an inquiry.
At this point, that’s also the only outcome that is politically viable for Mr. Trudeau: not a rapporteur, but an inquiry with a capital I. One tasked to answer questions that reach into the Prime Minister’s Office, but with a mandate to look at interference across Canada’s politics.