Both major federal opposition parties say concerns about how much government information agencies investigating alleged Chinese election interference can access have only strengthened their calls for a public inquiry.
The Liberal government released details Thursday of how special rapporteur David Johnston, the former governor-general, will carry out his probe of claims that Beijing attempted to influence the last two federal elections.
Earlier this week, concerns were raised about the fact that two agencies working with Johnson do not have the authority to examine cabinet records.
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) are not allowed to see cabinet secrets. The department that safeguards those records — the Privy Council Office (PCO) — will not guarantee that either agency will get an exemption.
The work of both agencies will feed into Johnson’s examination of claims that Beijing tried to tilt the 2019 and 2021 elections toward the governing Liberals — allegations made in reports published by the Globe and Mail and Global News.
Johnson, who will be paid between $1,400 and $1,600 per day during his review, will have access to cabinet records “where necessary,” said the PCO.
NDP House leader Peter Julian said he has doubts about whether Canadians will get the full story under the framework the Liberals have established. He said the lack of clear access to cabinet records — reported by CBC News on Thursday — just reinforces those concerns and strengthens the arguments opposition parties have made.
“I think the fact that we are seeing that the mandates and the access to information is difficult for the committees such as in NSIRA and NSICOP just reinforces the importance of having a public inquiry,” said Julian.”That’s certainly where the public is at.”
In the week before the federal budget, the NDP forced a non-binding motion through the House of Commons calling on the Liberal government to clear the air by calling a public inquiry. The motion was supported by the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois.
Asked for a comment on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Conservatives also said the agencies’ lack of access to cabinet documents “underscores the importance of a national inquiry.”
The party declined an interview and the spokesperson pointed CBC News to previous comments made by leader Pierre Pollivere, who said on March 7 that the party wants “an open, independent and public inquiry to get to the truth and make sure it never happens again.”
Pollivere, speaking in the foyer of the House of Commons, went on to say that “we need to bring home control of our democracy, bring home control of our country, rather than allowing foreign dictatorships to manipulate our interests.”
Johnson is expected to present an interim report by May 23 and a final report by the end of October, in which he could make the case for a public inquiry.
A former clerk of the Privy Council, Mel Cappe, said he has doubts about whether a full public inquiry would produce the kind of answers the opposition parties and Canadians in general are seeking.
Testifying in public might not be in the best interests of intelligence agencies and Chinese-Canadians worried about threats and intimidation from Beijing, he said.
“I think that David Johnston has to deal with this issue in a way that respects the secrecy that is required in to get candour from the expatriate community of Chinese Canadians,” Cappe said.
“And to do that, he can’t have a public inquiry. He may well need a private inquiry, and I think a private inquiry would make a lot of sense. And we rely on the integrity and the judgment of David Johnston to tell us what has to be public, and what should be kept secret.”
A private inquiry was the preferred route for the former Conservative government in 2006 when it appointed former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to examine the actions of Canadian security officials in relation to the treatment of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin.
All three said they were imprisoned and tortured in the Middle East after being accused of links to al-Qaeda. They said they were told by their interrogators that information about them had come from the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The men have denied any links to al-Qaeda.
Iacobucci’s final report in 2008 found the actions of Canadian officials contributed indirectly to the torture of the three men.