To understand why Justin Trudeau appeared before reporters on Monday evening to outline new steps in his government’s response to China’s alleged attempts to interfere in Canada’s political process, one only has to take note of what was said about Trudeau in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon.
In the first question period since the controversy over foreign interference came to a boil, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre alleged that “for 10 years the Communist dictatorship in Beijing has been helping the prime minister” and that “we have had 10 years of cover-ups from the prime minister.”
The available evidence does not support those charges. But leaks to the media suggest Chinese officials at least attempted to meddle in Canadian politics around the 2019 and 2021 elections. In one telling, China sought to defeat some Conservative candidates and wanted to see a Liberal minority government retain power. (Of 11 candidates in 2019 who were reportedly viewed as friends of China, nine were Liberals and two were Conservatives.)
Exactly what happened, and what it amounted to, is very unclear. And in the absence of much clarity, it is that much easier for imaginative politicians and observers to wonder aloud about all sorts of things.
The Liberals might have tried to comfort themselves with the knowledge that the opposition in Parliament will eventually, inevitably, move on to some new outrage. But the charges in this case are too serious — not only for Trudeau’s government, but for the fundamental question of public faith in Canadian democracy.
Until now, the government’s response has been piecemeal and based more on inference than information. As Trudeau has noted, there are existing institutions charged with guarding against foreign interference — and an independent panel of senior public servants concluded in both 2019 and 2021 that there was no impact on the outcome of those federal elections.
In an appearance before a House of Commons committee last week, the deputy minister of foreign affairs — the senior civil servant in the department — also cautioned against putting too much stock in any single piece of “intelligence.”
“Intelligence rarely paints a full or a concrete or actionable picture,” David Morrison said. “Intelligence almost always comes with a heavy caveat and is qualified in ways designed to caution consumers such as myself from jumping to conclusions while at the same time helping us at least to gain a little bit more awareness.”
At one point, he was more blunt: “Intelligence is not truth,” he said. At another, he invoked the example of the “intelligence” that was once said to show that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.”
Not rushing off to war — rhetorically, in this case — on the basis of a few intelligence leaks is probably wise. But broad reassurances and inferred quibbles also haven’t gone very far to either refute the worst fears or reassure everyone that the government and national security agencies responded appropriately to whatever was known.
Can NSICOP get answers?
Trudeau’s appointment of a special rapporteur and his appeal to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) hold out at the least the possibility of going further.
NSICOP currently has nine members: four Liberal MPs, two Conservatives, one New Democrat, one member of the Bloc Quebecois and one senator (the Senate could add two more members). It meets behind closed doors and it is limited in what it can report publicly, but in this case its members have a chance to prove that parliamentarians can seriously grapple with a contentious issue and provide real accountability.
The special rapporteur might eventually recommend that some other kind of inquiry is necessary. Regardless — either through NSICOP or some other outlet — the government can show that it is capable of greater transparency.
Even if there isn’t the kind of “cover up” that Poilievre envisions, the government and its security agencies might have real reasons to worry about disclosing too much about what was known or done. They also might be uneasy with the idea that a media leak would compel them to reveal more than they normally would — perhaps they fear setting a bad precedent.
But those concerns have to be set against the risk that not being as transparent and direct as possible in this case will leave that much more room for doubt and suspicion. Maybe nothing will ever satisfy everyone — some will have already decided that this story is about — but the more facts the better off Canadians will be.
“Foreign interference is a complex landscape that should not be boiled down to sound bites and binary choices. And it certainly should not be about partisan politics,” Trudeau said on Monday evening.
“As politicians, we work at building trust with people every day. But it is also our duty to do everything we can so that Canadians can trust our institutions, now and into the future.”
Some of that might sound like thinly veiled criticism of his opposition — and probably it was. But it applies equally to Trudeau.
It is fair to ask whether the allegations reported in the media are credible and substantive. And it is fair to ask whether the government did enough to respond to whatever information it had.
But the ultimate question for Trudeau will be whether he did everything he can to maintain trust in Canadian democracy. And, in this case, “everything” would mean ensuring that those first two questions are answered as clearly as possible.