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Election interference: eye on the ball, please
People living in Canada are having their democratic rights undermined. Fixing that should be everyone's goal.
Back from vacation, I’m delighted to see nothing has changed. It’s David Johnston this and David Johnston that and David Johnston the other. That last link is about how Johnston has hired Navigator, which is reliably identified as a “crisis-communications firm” in stories like this, to help him figure out what to say. To which one possible answer, given the current storm of excrement, is: My God, wouldn’t you?
I prefer not to pile onto stories that absolutely everyone else is writing about. Today constitutes a bit of an exception to that policy. I’m working on a bunch of stories on topics that will stray very far abroad from this one. But while those other stories percolate, here are a few thoughts on Canada’s response to election interference.
First, we’re in the phase of the story where everyone digs in. Johnston has a mandate from the Prime Minister of Canada which extends to October. He plans to keep working until then. I never thought he was right for this job. But nobody should be surprised that, having taken it, he intends to keep doing it.
But, we are told, Parliament has voted to demand that he stand down! Indeed, that’s how I’d have voted too. Yet Johnston persists. This too is hardly surprising. Ignoring Parliament is easy enough, and it often feels great, as when Parliament voted to express profound sadness over a cover illustration in a magazine where I used to work. Johnston could have taken Parliament’s counsel, but since we are, as I’ve noted, in the phase of the story where everyone digs in, he’s digging in instead.
There is a school of thought that believes this sort of situation must lead straight to a confidence vote and an election. Brother Coyne is that school’s headmaster. I’m always in favour of the largest possible number of elections too, especially since I now make a living selling political analysis. I fondly hope the next campaign will be excellent for business. But I seem to recall that the last time Parliament followed its convictions all the way to a forced election, Canadians responded by sending the Parliament-flouters back with reinforcements. I don’t know whether that would happen now. But the opposition parties are allowed to make such calculations. No surprise, then, that they too are digging in — but not all the way.
Where does this leave us? First, with a process terribly compromised by lousy design. Justin Trudeau sought to outsource his credibility by subcontracting his judgment. The credibility transfusion was supposed to flow from Johnston to Trudeau. Instead it has gone the other way. The PMO hoped they’d found somebody whose credibility nobody would challenge, because he comes from the sort of precincts that impress them. Now they’re stuck insisting that challenging Johnston’s fitness or his conclusions is uncouth. The number of Canadians who decline to take etiquette tips from the PMO continues to surprise the PMO.
So far I have discussed all of this in terms of the usual Ottawa obsessions: Parliament, status, tactics, winners and losers. This sort of scorekeeping comforts Ottawa lifers, soothes us because we have been doing it most of our lives.
But there is another audience here.
It is Canadians and permanent residents who live here and experience intimidation all the time. Most are members of diaspora communities, Chinese and other. They have been saying for years that their freedoms of speech and assembly and their right to security of the person — their Charter rights — are being targeted, infringed and impinged by agents of Beijing’s thug regime. What Cherie Wong, executive director of the Alliance Canada-Hong Kong, says every time she is asked, is that it’s time for action. ACHK’s latest report reads a lot like its earlier reports, like the reports from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians that Trudeau admits he ignored. There’s not much new here, just as there would not be much new after Johnston’s process, or after a theoretically better process launched by some future government.
So Ottawa’s current process obsession, while understandable, is not at all helpful.
The ACHK report includes recommendations that could be implemented before the next election, if parties were less obsessed with using foreign interference to win the next election. The Trudeau government is indeed moving ahead on some elements of ACHK’s recommendations, including a foreign-influence registry. That’s a fraught process that presents real pitfalls — overreach and stigmatization at one extreme, and at the other, a once-over-lightly framework that would not capture the sort of clandestine activity that’s the problem. As indeed the political scientist Stephanie Carvin discusses in the ACHK report. So it’s not something to be rushed. But all due dispatch would be welcome.
(For a discussion of the complexities of foreign-influence registries, readers could do worse than to look at the proceedings of a February meeting of a joint committee of both chambers of the Australian Parliament, considering amendments to Australia’s own foreign-influence registry six years after it was implemented. The comparison with our own debate does not flatter Canada’s Parliament. Australian politics can be raw and tough, and Beijing’s influence is, if anything, a more pressing issue there than here. But members from all parties in Australia discuss the issue calmly. They treat witnesses as sources of useful information, not as sticks to beat their political opponents with. I’m not sure how Canada can get there from here, but it’s refreshing to be reminded it’s possible.)
I suppose what I’m proposing here is a dose of pragmatism informed by a sense that Parliament can be something more than an endless pissing match. I was an early member of the skeptics’ club on David Johnston’s suitability for this particular task. I don’t feel chastened by subsequent events. But that ship has rather spectacularly sailed. Trying to turn the next five months of his work into a bigger fiasco won’t help the people living in Canada in fear and worry. Neither will adding another commission with grander pretensions for a report sometime after the next election. The question facing parliamentarians now is to work on solutions instead of trying to win arguments. There’ll be plenty of arguments later.