Liberals defend outreach to ex-China diplomats, reject opposition call for study
OTTAWA – Accusations of politicizing the troubled Canada-China relationship flew across a committee meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday, with the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs claiming that the Conservatives are attempting to score points while lives and livelihoods hang 'in the balance'.
The special summer meeting was forced by the opposition Conservative and NDP members, to discuss allegations that a high-level civil servant put pressure on former diplomats to align their public comments about China with the government's message.
Last week, The Globe and Mail reported that former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney alleged that the PMO asked him to clear any public comments he was making about China with Global Affairs Canada first, a request he said made him uncomfortable.
According to the report, the call came from an associate deputy minister at the foreign affairs department, who claimed he was passing on the message from the PMO. Mulroney has regularly been commenting on Canada-China tensions, sometimes critically of the current approach.
A second former diplomat Guy Saint-Jacques said that he received a similar call on July 22 from the same official, with a message from the PMO saying that it would be appreciated if all Canadians commenting spoke with one voice on the matter.
Speaking with reporters in Vancouver on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied that the PMO "directed" these alleged interactions, and instead said that the government regularly engages with key stakeholders.
CTV News spoke with Saint-Jacques and he said that he doesn't think the call was a "big deal," rather he was open to it.
"I can understand why the opposition is trying to make hay of this, but again from my perspective, I didn't feel threatened at any point. I don't feel that they were trying to muzzle me, in fact I think it's useful," Saint-Jacques said.
"There are some elements that are missing here, and I think there was miscommunication at some point. I don't know if was from PMO when they communicated with Global Affairs… or whether it was once it was received it was at Global Affairs that it was not properly understood."
Summer study shot down
Tuesday's meeting was meant to discuss the prospect of launching a rare summer study into what the opposition has billed as "undue pressure on former career diplomats," but quickly descended into a heated back and forth over the way both the Liberals and Conservatives were handling the file.
The Conservatives' proposal was to have the associate deputy minister, two ex-diplomats, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appear and deliver sworn-in testimony on the matter, within the next two weeks. After an hour of discussion, the Liberal majority voted against the motion.
"The responsibility we have is far greater than to score political points and I am very distressed… at the tone, the idea and at the allegations that are being cast about by members of the opposition," said foreign affairs parliamentary secretary Rob Oliphant. He said that there are times to let opposition bickering go, for the sake of what is at stake. In this case that includes the two Canadians in China: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, as well as the livelihoods of the farmers that China's trade actions have jeopardized.
"That means we put aside political points and trying to make specious arguments for the sake of some game," Oliphant said.
He went on to defend the government’s actions, saying that the department and government officials, including PMO staff, meet and discuss foreign policy with members of the foreign service, and civil society. Oliphant confirmed that a call was made to Mulroney with the intention, as he said it is in other instances, "to ensure that we are not speaking with one voice, but speaking with an informed voice."
"There was no intention, nor was there any instruction from anyone, including the PMO, that Mr. Mulroney clear his public statements with the government," Oliphant said.
His remarks were followed by allegations from the Conservatives that the Liberals are trying to "hide behind the two Michaels," and that they are ones that have "absolutely risen above politics," while at the same time comparing these reported instances of pressure to that of the former justice minister that was central to the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
"It's not surprising, but certainly disappointing that we can't rise above politics… and get to the bottom of this. Give Canadians the confidence that they need to have in the public servants and in their former ambassadors," said Conservative MP Michael Barrett.
About an hour after the meeting concluded Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer held a press conference in West Block where he accused the government of shutting down the meeting to "cover-up," their attempts to "silence critics of their handling of this issue."
A troubled relationship
Since late 2018, relations between Canada and China have been strained after Canadian law enforcement arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, at the Vancouver airport after an extradition request from the United States.
The arrest was swiftly condemned by China, who not long after detained Kovrig and Spavor. The Chinese government later formally arrested the pair on the suspicion of stealing state secrets.
There have also been implications for Canadian farmers, with a series of agriculture-related actions taken by the Chinese government, including banning Canadian canola.
The Liberals have acknowledged that Canada is in a "difficult situation with China" but say that diplomatic efforts continue. Throughout the tiff, Trudeau and his ministers have remained adamant that Canada is a rule of law country that will not bow to pressure from a country that the prime minister has said is trying to "get its own way on the world stage."
A few weeks ago the Conservative Party of Canada had to pull an attack ad featuring the names — in one case a misspelled version — and faces of Kovrig and Spavor after one of the men's families complained.
The video was included in a fundraising email that targeted the Liberals' foreign policy record, criticizing the Trudeau government's handling of the detentions.
With files from CTV National News' Ottawa Bureau Chief Joyce Napier