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Will the Conservative foreign interference motion be a confidence vote? Liberals 'having ongoing discussions'

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In an effort to keep the foreign interference story at the forefront, and to do an apparent end run around the Liberal filibuster blocking one study from going ahead, the Conservatives forced the House to spend Monday debating a motion instructing an opposition-dominated House committee to strike its own review.

Monday was a Conservative opposition day in the House of Commons, allowing the Official Opposition to set the agenda, and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre picked a motion that, if passed, would have the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee embark on a fresh foreign interference study. The motion is set to come to a vote on Tuesday.

The motion also contains clear instructions that the committee—chaired by Conservative MP John Brassard— call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford to testify under oath, followed by numerous other officials and players believed to have insight surrounding allegations of interference by China in last two federal elections.

Among the other names the Conservatives are pushing to come testify: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, authors of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol reports for the 2019 and 2021 elections James Judd and Morris Rosenberg, respectively, and former Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation officials.

Also on the list: many federal security officials who have already testified and told MPs they are limited in what they can say publicly, current and former ambassadors to China, a panel of past national campaign directors as well as the representatives on the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force from each major party.

Trudeau's name is not on the witness list, but that could change down the line depending on the trajectory of the testimony and how the story evolves. In order to fit in what would be more than a dozen additional hours of testimony, the motion prescribes that the committee meet at least one extra day each week regardless of whether the House is sitting, and have priority access to House resources.

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 the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 campaigns and what the opposition thinks is an insufficient response by the Liberal government. 

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

WILL NDP BACK THIS? IS A CONFIDENCE VOTE COMING?

The Conservative motion dominated Monday's question period, with two central questions swirling: How will the NDP vote? And will the Liberals make it a confidence vote?

So far the NDP have not tipped their hat in terms of their voting intention, with signals being sent that the caucus is still considering its options, while expressing some concerns with the motion's scope and witness list. 

During debate, NDP House Leader Peter Julian said that while the motion has some positive elements, others are curious. He pointed to a motion the New Democrats will be advancing later this week, asking for a public inquiry into foreign interference efforts broadly, as better addressing Canadians' calls than focusing in just on China. 

The Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois wouldn't have the votes to see it pass without them, and one-by-one Conservative MPs have risen in the House to put more pressure on the NDP to vote with them. 

"While this motion is a test for this government, it is also a test for the NDP," said Conservative MP and one of the party's leading spokespeople on the story Michael Cooper, kicking off the debate on Monday.

"The NDP has a choice: They can continue to do the bidding for this corrupt Liberal government, propping up this corrupt prime minister. Or, they can work with us to protect the sanctity of the ballot box and the integrity of our elections by working to get the answers that Canadians deserve... We will soon find out what choice they make," Cooper said.

The New Democrats have been in favour of an as-public-as-possible airing of the facts around interference, including hearing from Telford and other top staffers, as they’ve been pushing for at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC).That effort though, has been stymied by close to 24 hours of Liberal filibustering preventing the proposal from coming to a vote.

If the New Democrats support Poilievre's motion, it'll pass and spark this new committee study.

But, if the Liberals want to shut this effort down, Trudeau could declare it a confidence motion and tie NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's hands, unless he's ready to end the confidence-and-supply agreement, which is coming up on its one-year anniversary. 

The premise of the pact is that the NDP would prop-up the Liberals on any confidence votes in exchange for progressive policy action. Part of the deal predicates discussions between the two parties on vote intentions ahead of declaring a vote is a matter of confidence.

In weighing whether this is confidence vote-worthy, Trudeau would likely be assessing whether risking an election call over an election interference controversy —which could be the result of a failed confidence vote given the Liberals' minority standing—is the right move.

Asked by reporters on Monday whether the prime minister will be designating the vote a matter of confidence, Government House Leader Mark Holland wouldn't say.

"We are having ongoing discussions and dialogue. I think that it’s not helpful to jump to the end of a process when we’re still having conversations, Holland said. "I understand the temptation to go to the end of the process when we’re still in the middle of it…We’re in a situation right now where we continue to have these discussions."

Decrying the motion as "heavily steeped in partisan politics" with the objective of playing "games with what is an enormously serious issue," Holland suggested that some of those listed by the Conservatives, including Telford, were not best placed to speak to concerns around foreign interference in the last two elections.

"It is not a move aimed at trying to get answers, or trying to get information," Holland said.

The Liberal House leader also echoed the prime minister's past position that calling staffers who can't say much, and other officials who have already testified, to come and say again that they're unable to answer more detailed questions due to their oaths to uphold national security, won't help assuage Canadians' concerns over China's interference.

POILIEVRE ONCE OPPOSED STAFFERS TESTIFYING

During his time as democratic reform minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Poilievre was opposed—as the Liberals are now— to having staff testify at committees.

Asked why it is so important from his party's perspective to have Telford appear, Poilievre said last week that because she's been 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. He did not acknowledge that, like the prime minister, she too would be restricted in speaking publicly about them.

"She knows all the secrets. It's time for her to come forward and honestly testify about what happened. What was Beijing's role in supporting Justin Trudeau? And how do we prevent this kind of interference from ever happening again in Canada?" Poilievre said.

This move comes after Trudeau's pick of former governor general David Johnston as the special rapporteur to look into foreign interference and provide recommendations to further shore up Canada’s democracy became highly politicized over Conservative and Bloc Quebecois questioning of his impartiality and potential conflict of interest given his connections to the Trudeau family and foundation.

On Friday, Trudeau said the Conservatives are politicizing the important issue of Canadians' confidence in elections, while defending his pick as "absolutely unimpeachable." He sought to explain why he's gone the route of tapping an independent investigator and asking for closed-door national security bodies to review the facts.

"Canadians aren't even sure if this government is really focused on their best interests or is in the pockets of some foreign government. That's something that needs to be dealt with extraordinarily seriously," Trudeau said. "And the partisan nature of politics means that no matter what I say, people are going to wonder— if they didn't vote for me— whether or not they can trust me. And that polarization is getting even more serious."

Pointing to Poilievre's past cabinet position, Trudeau noted: "He was in charge of the integrity of our elections. He was in charge at the time, of making sure that China or others weren't influencing our elections. He understands how important this, or he should." 

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