Saturday, March 11, 2023

John Ivison: Liberals are fighting suspiciously hard to prevent Katie Telford testifying on Chinese interference

 John Ivison: Liberals are fighting suspiciously hard to prevent Katie Telford testifying on Chinese interference

If Trudeau's chief of staff is as clueless as the prime minister claims to be, what does she have to lose?

The motion introduced at the House of Commons’ ethics committee on Friday to call the prime minister’s chief of staff to testify on its investigation into foreign interference means there are now two parliamentary committees seeking an audience with Katie Telford, and, presumably, two committees that are about to be gridlocked by Liberal filibusters.

On Thursday at the House affairs and procedures committee, Liberal members tried to talk down the clock to prevent a vote also calling Telford as a witness from being held (the opposition parties have a majority on the committee and are in favour of calling the chief of staff).

One of the Liberal party’s more partisan MPs, Mark Gerretsen, spent more than an hour making a point he could have made in a minute — that while he generously conceded the public should be allowed to weigh in on the issue of foreign interference, he would prefer it not be via a public inquiry. He not only bored, he bored for Canada.

At the end of a brain-numbing performance that would have had any watching taxpayers demanding their $700 million in annual Parliamentary funding back, Gerretsen had the gall to say he was done “for now — but I do have more to add.”

The filibuster — from the Spanish word for “lawless plunderer” — has to be among the most unproductive, soul-crushing human pursuits ever conceived.

A party that says it has nothing to hide is obstructing progress at two committees to ensure the person who is probably best positioned to speak to the issue of foreign interference is not obliged to answer questions in public.

There are good arguments why, in the normal course of events, it should be elected officials, not unelected staff, who are hauled before committees.

But in this case, Telford may be the only person party to all the relevant information.

She has appeared twice before as a witness at parliamentary committees: over the WE Charity affair in 2020 and, after a similarly fruitless filibuster, on the sexual misconduct in the military issue in 2021.

It is likely that, if she does relent in this case, the answers will be similarly inconclusive to those given two years ago at the defence committee.

On that occasion, she probably should not have had to answer questions from MPs, since it became clear that the defence minister at the time, Harjit Sajjan, should have conducted his own inquiry into allegations of sexual impropriety by the then chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance. Telford said she was not given any information on the substance of the allegations and so referred it to the Privy Council Office. One can imagine that she might again profess wilful ignorance when asked about Liberal links to Chinese proxies.

The difference in this case is that it is Telford’s job to protect the prime minister from the tides of potentially incriminating information that crash over the Prime Minister’s Office.

By design, she may well have a far better idea than Justin Trudeau does about the nasty side of the electoral process, offering his denials some plausibility.

In Vance’s case, she claimed that she did not flag to the prime minister serious misconduct allegations against the chief of the defence staff because she felt it was inappropriate for political staff or politicians to be involved.

That would be a harder case to make if electoral interference matters involve Liberal operatives.

But it is possible the prime minister was left in the dark on such important affairs, even if it raises questions about the bounds of his ignorance. It is not a good look for any nation’s political leader to claim that he or she wasn’t briefed when it comes to such weighty issues.

However, one security source said past prime ministers made it clear that they didn’t want to know these kind of details, lest their future action be shackled.

That argument does not apply to chiefs of staff, which makes Telford’s appearance at one or the other committee all the more necessary.

There are good reasons why the Liberals would prefer that not happen. A new Abacus Data poll suggests eight out 10 Canadians have heard about foreign interference, with a plurality believing the Chinese tried to influence the election and a clear majority saying they are in favour of a public inquiry.

But, crucially, Canadians are confused because the details are so opaque, and so engagement, and anger, remains relatively low.

As long as it remains unclear whether there was any connivance between members of the Liberal party and Beijing’s proxies, that is unlikely to change.

Telford has proven herself skilled in the use of the soft pedal, but if she is party to incriminating information supplied by the security services, she would be tempting fate to appear before a committee.

On the other hand, if she is as clueless as the prime minister claims to be, what does she have to lose? At the very least, it would save the nation from Gerritsen's encore performance.

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