Political Negotiations on Inquiry Into Foreign Interference Nearing Agreement

Political Negotiations on Inquiry Into Foreign Interference Nearing Agreement
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way into the West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 21, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
The Canadian Press

The federal government appeared to be on the verge of calling a public inquiry on foreign interference Wednesday after months of resisting calls from the opposition to do so.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc is leading what the government called ongoing and productive discussions with the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois about how to move forward on the foreign interference quagmire that has clouded the government and this parliamentary sitting for months.

“I expect news on that very, very soon given the productive nature of those conversations,” government House leader Mark Holland said Wednesday afternoon.

The discussions are happening in the waning days of the spring sitting of Parliament, which is currently scheduled to end on Friday.

The public inquiry is on the negotiating table as the government seeks to get priority bills passed and avoid the possibility of hundreds of votes on Conservative amendments to the government’s main estimates, which lay out specific amounts that can be spent on hundreds of government programs.

The government’s usual end-of-session motion agreeing to fast track some final pieces of legislation through various stages of debate passed Wednesday with unanimous consent.

But that motion would typically include the date the parties agree to rise.

And this time it did not, because unless a public inquiry was announced, not all opposition parties would consent to rising earlier than planned.

Allegations that the Chinese government attempted to interfere in the results of the last two federal elections have hounded the government since the beginning of the year.

All parties agree that the 2019 and 2021 federal election results were not compromised, but opposition MPs say a public inquiry on foreign meddling attempts is the only way for Canadians to feel confident in the electoral system.

They voted in favour of three motions—two from the NDP and one from the Conservatives—demanding an inquiry.

The last motion from the NDP passed on May 31.

It sought an inquiry headed by a commissioner backed unanimously by the House of Commons, who would have the power “to review all aspects of foreign interference from all states, including, but not limited to, the actions of the Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Russian governments.”

Per the NDP motion, that commission would present its report and recommendations before the next federal election.

The Liberals voted against all three motions.

Instead, Trudeau appointed former governor general David Johnston in March as a “special rapporteur” to review documents, interview some of the people involved and decide by the end of May if an inquiry was warranted.

Johnston’s initial report on May 23 said an inquiry was not the right choice, largely because so much of the material involved classified evidence that could not be made public.

But the opposition parties skewered that decision and accused Johnston of being too affiliated with Trudeau.

Johnston was to continue his work, hold public hearings and issue a final report in the fall, but has said he will resign before the end of the month because the work has become too hyper-partisan. A final report from Johnston is still expected before July.

After Johnston announced his resignation, Trudeau appointed LeBlanc to try and figure out how to move forward on the matter. The Liberals also asked the opposition to come forward with their ideas and possible names for someone who could lead the effort to investigate foreign interference.

Opposition leaders met last week to try and come to a consensus on what they wanted the government to do.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said this week his party would only put forward names after an inquiry is officially called.

He also said the government has asked for a meeting with all parties on Thursday.

Trudeau said he’s glad opposition parties are ready to work together to find a consensus, but said he’s wary given “how opposition parties behaved in the last months” towards Johnston.

“We want to make sure that everyone agrees on the framework, the people who will participate and we don’t want to fall back into personal attacks, which will undermine Canadians’ confidence in their institutions,” he said in French.

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Wednesday morning he hoped an agreement on the inquiry could even be hours away.

Blanchet suggested the inquiry would focus on allegations that the Chinese government had interfered in Canadian democracy, but that it would not be restricted to that subject.

He said he believed that at a minimum, the Bloc and the Liberals would agree on details of the inquiry and that it might also be supported by the NDP and Conservatives.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday he was “not confident about the timing” of an agreement on an inquiry, but said he had seen more openness from the government to calling one.

“We are not going to let up pressure,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We are feeling hopeful but cautiously hopeful.”