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Trudeau's top aide Telford to testify, amid Hill drama over foreign interference


After weeks of resistance, and ahead of a vote that could have compelled it to happen, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office announced Tuesday that his chief of staff Katie Telford will testify about foreign election interference, before a committee that has been studying the issue for months.

“While there are serious constraints on what can be said in public about sensitive intelligence matters, in an effort to make Parliament work, Ms. Telford has agreed to appear at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee as part of their study,” Trudeau's office said in a statement.

“Foreign interference is not a partisan issue," Trudeau's office said, while pointing to the suite of measures the prime minister has announced, including appointing David Johnston as a new special rapporteur, and tapping federal national security review bodies to dig into concerns around election interference. Johnston's mandate and scope of his role was revealed on Tuesday.

This move was an apparent effort to find a compromise with the NDP, who had threatened to help the Conservatives pass a motion on Tuesday that would have seen Telford and numerous other federal officials testify as part of an entirely new committee study.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters that his party was prepared to vote in favour of the motion, unless the Liberals stopped their filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) on an outstanding call to hear from Trudeau’s top aide.

Shortly after Telford's agreement to testify was reported, the approximately 24 hours of impasse at PROC broke, with the committee of MPs agreeing to ask Telford to appear before mid-April for at least two hours, under oath and on her own.

"It's important that we're able to get to the heart of this matter, find out what Ms. Telford knew, when she knew it," said Conservative MP Michael Barrett at committee. Though, given the “constraints” the PMO has flagged, it remains to be seen what kind of detail she’ll be able to offer the committee during what will be a public hearing.

"The Conservatives are trying to gin up the toxicity and partisanship by making a political theatre out of it and by catching Ms. Telford or others in not being able to answer direct questions," Trudeau told reporters on his way into question period.

Trudeau said the key questions around the allegations of what he did or didn't do, knew or didn't know, will be answered in "responsible ways" through the processes his government has advanced.

"That's where the answers are going to come," Trudeau said. 

This will not be the first time Telford has testified before a parliamentary committee. She’s appeared previously to speak about the WE Charity controversy as well as the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Most recently, she testified under oath as part of the Public Order Emergency Commission into the government’s use of the Emergencies Act.

The committee has also agreed to invite the national Liberal and Conservative campaign directors from the 2019 and 2021 elections to appear, as well as former top Conservative PMO official Jenni Byrne and then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s chief of staff Tauscha Michaud.

This development came after Trudeau confirmed that the vote that took place after question period on the Conservative motion would not be a matter of confidence, because it went to "how important the issue of foreign interference is."

Taking risking an election call over an election interference controversy—which could have been the result of a failed confidence vote given the Liberals' minority standing—off the table, Trudeau said he wanted to handle the issue differently and with less partisanship than the Official Opposition.

There had been some question whether the Liberals would make the Conservative motion a confidence vote, to potentially force the NDP to side with the government to squash the Bloc Quebecois-backed push for a new probe.

However, Singh—without his hands tied by desire to keep the supply-and-confidence deal alive—outlined a clear line in the sand, that the Liberals met.

"If the Liberal government, if Justin Trudeau doesn't stop the obstruction that's going on in committee, if Justin Trudeau doesn't allow his chief of staff to testify, we will force him to do so, by voting with the opposition,” Singh said earlier Tuesday, pointing still to a public inquiry rather than a parliamentary study as the more apt venue for further investigation into this topic.

"Right now there's a lot of serious questions about what the Prime Minister's Office knew, when they knew it, and what they did about that. We would prefer that there was a public inquiry that was investigating this and finding out those answers. In the meantime, these questions are very important and so we want to make sure that Canadians have an opportunity to hear what was known, and when it was known, and what was done with that information," Singh said.

Trudeau has committed that, should Johnston recommend a public inquiry, the federal government would abide by that advice, which is now slated to be received by the end of May. The NDP had tried on Tuesday to have the House vote on calling a public inquiry but accused the Conservatives of blocking that attempt.

Directing a question at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre during question period—as Poilievre did to him on Monday in an effort to pressure the NDP to side with them —Singh asked him what he had to hide.

"We forced this government to end the obstruction at committee…. Rendering the Conservative motion useless, which is not surprising because they just want to play games," Singh said.

After question period, Poilievre's motion that MPs spent most of Monday debating failed to pass. The proposal sought to have the House instruct the opposition-dominated Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee (ETHI) to strike a fresh study into Chinese interference in the last two federal elections.

That motion contained clear instructions that the committee call Telford to testify under oath, followed by numerous other federal officials and party players believed to have insight into allegations of meddling during the 2019 and 2021 campaigns. The Conservatives also wanted ETHI to have priority access to House resources to facilitate what would have been more than a dozen additional hours of testimony. 

Also on the Conservatives' proposed witness list: authors of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol reports for the 2019 and 2021 elections James Judd and Morris Rosenberg, respectively, former Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation officials, and current and former ambassadors to China.

During his time as democratic reform minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Poilievre was opposed to having staff testify at committees. Now, Poilievre’s position has been that because Telford was involved with Trudeau's campaigns, from his leadership bid through the last two federal elections, she would be aware of all of the intelligence briefings he'd been provided.

"It took weeks of pressure for the prime minister to back down and flip flop, but allow only one of his top advisors, one of the key people who was involved in the campaigns that Beijing helped the liberal party win in multiple elections, but what we really need is the full truth," he said during question period Tuesday.

Even with the Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and independent MPs voting in support of the motion, it was defeated by a vote of 147 to 177 with the Liberals and NDP voting against, to the backdrop of boos from inside the House chamber.

"This is evidence in my opinion, of Parliament working," Government House Leader Mark Holland told reporters of the Telford testimony compromise despite Liberal MPs spending days of committee time talking out the clock in order to avoid this outcome.

"We've attempted to put forward the people that we thought best had information, but we also want Parliament to work and so we listen to the opposition parties and attempt to work with them. That is by necessity, a process of negotiation and back and forth… There's disagreements along the way, but I think that's a natural part of this process," Holland said.

Framing this apparent compromise as an effort to make Parliament "work," Holland was echoing wording used by both the NDP and Liberals in the launch of their agreement that's coming up on its one-year anniversary on Wednesday.

All of this was sparked by The Globe and Mail and Global News reports, citing largely unnamed intelligence sources, alleging specific attempts by Beijing to alter election outcomes, and what the opposition thinks is an insufficient response by the Liberal government. PROC has been studying the issue of foreign interference since November. 

Officials have repeatedly asserted the integrity of both elections held, despite China's interference efforts. 




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