‘How we’re going to get answers may be cooled down, but the subject matter itself is still very much a live wire,’ says former Conservative staffer Yaroslav Baran.
On Sept. 7, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced that the major federal parties had reached an agreement on the terms and commissioner for a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Mead
Public inquiries are often “a sign of the end of an era,” and the coming inquiry on foreign interference means that the Liberals must continue to manage that issue on a day-to-day basis this fall, says former Liberal staffer Jeremy Ghio.
“It’s never a good sign when the government is going into a public inquiry about what they’re doing,” said Ghio, who is now a director with the government relations firm TACT, in an interview with The Hill Times. “You never know what can come up at a public inquiry. You never know what witnesses can be called, and what they’re going to say in this inquiry … You’re going to have a bunch of people looking into your actions or your inaction towards an issue, and how to solve it. And every week, every month, you’re going to have something new—another story that you have to brush away to focus on your agenda.”
Ghio pointed to several historic examples of inquiries or investigations that shaped the late stages of governments, such as the Gomery Commission towards the end of Paul Martin’s time as prime minister, the Senate expenses investigation that took place during the latter part of the Stephen Harper government, and the Charbonneau Commission held towards the end of a lengthy term in power for the Liberal Party of Quebec.
The agreement was reached during the summer by the official parties in the House of Commons, and announced on Sept. 7 by Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.)—who is also minister for democratic institutions and has taken the lead for the government on this file—the stage is now set for such an inquiry to take place into foreign interference in Canadian elections.
The terms are set out in a series of Sept. 7 orders-in-council, which appoint Justice Marie-Josée Hogue as commissioner, with a mandate to “examine and assess interference by China, Russia, and other foreign states or non-state actors … and any impacts on the 43rd and 44th general elections at the national and electoral district levels.” The judge is also instructed to “assess the flow of information to senior decision-makers, including elected officials” and the capacity of federal departments and agencies to “detect, deter and counter any form of foreign interference directly or indirectly targeting Canada’s democratic processes.” Hogue, who has sat on the Quebec Court of Appeal since 2015, is mandated to deliver an interim report by February 2024, and a final report by the end of that year.
Leah West, an international affairs professor at Carleton University who studies national security law, counterterrorism, and cyber operations, told The Hill Times that the order-in-council takes a standard approach to setting the terms for this public inquiry within the legal framework of the Inquiries Act in that it “puts more meat on the bones” about what parameters the commissioner has to work within, while “the actual specifics about how the commissioner will run the show, and run the process of her inquiry is really left to her.”
This includes the commissioner being left to hire her own staff, select venues, and set the day-to-day timeline for the commission.
Hogue will have the power to compel witnesses to testify under oath, as is standard, said West. She will also have the power to compel documents. However, for documents that are covered by cabinet confidence, she will have access only to the ones the government has allowed under the terms of reference. These are defined as “those confidential cabinet documents that came into existence on or after November 4, 2015, and that were provided to the Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference,” meaning she will have access to the same set of documents David Johnston received in his former role.
West said she expects much of the first part of the inquiry will be public, while the latter stages could play out behind closed doors. The terms instruct Hogue to “conduct public hearings” at the outset of her mandate to “identify the challenges, limitations, and potential adverse impacts” of publicly disclosing national security information. It says the purpose of this phase is “fostering transparency and enhancing public awareness and understanding.”
West interprets that aspect of the order-in-council as seeking to use this first phase as an “educational component” for both the judge and the general public.
She said an educational component is important because, as a provincial judge, Hogue will not have experience in navigating public disclosure of national security information. She said it is equally important to build an understanding about this with the Canadian public over both the short and long term.
West pointed to a recent Globe & Mail editorial that argued the commission should “make disclosure the default” because “Beijing is well aware of what it has done, and tried to do.” West said she disagrees with this line of reasoning because revealing to China what Canada knows about its actions will also indirectly reveal sources and methods about how that information was obtained. This is because, in some cases, there are only a small number of possible sources or methods that could have been used to obtain such information, said West.
A key outcome of an inquiry could be using this educational component to build greater “resiliency” in the Canadian public to recognize foreign interference, said West, since it’s a problem that is not going away.
Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, Ont.), who has been an alleged target of foreign interference by Beijing, made a similar point in remarks he delivered in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, appearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Chong said democracies must “arm citizens and elected officials with the information they need to protect themselves” when it comes to foreign interference.
“It’s grounded in resiliency. It’s grounded in the education system—the primary and high school education system,” said Chong. “And in empowering civil society groups to counter this disinformation.”
Following this initial phase, West expects much of the commission’s activities will move behind closed doors, as the judge interviews government officials who have worked on matters related to intelligence and foreign interference.
‘Any opposition party worth its salt will want to keep asking questions: Baran
Ghio said, that although public inquiries are difficult for governments, one advantage the Liberals have is that issues related to global affairs usually do not define how voters cast their ballot in an election.
However, he said, he sees signs the Conservatives will look to re-frame the issue on domestic lines—an effective move if they can achieve this, said Ghio—because it will make it more likely to influence voters.
“I have the feeling that they’re going to try to fix this issue with the broader safety and security issue,” said Ghio, based on the way he heard these issues presented at the recent Conservative policy convention. “And if I was them this is what I would do. From a Conservative perspective, it’s like they’re going to try to make it look like it’s the prime minister [who] is not taking security issues seriously enough.”
Former Conservative staffer Yaroslav Baran, who is now a partner at Pendulum Group, said that even though the process issues have been settled over the summer, he also expects this will remain a politically hot topic through the fall.
“How we’re going to get answers may be cooled down, but the subject matter itself is still very much a live wire,” said Baran.
However, he said, the matter should not be viewed solely from a tactical point of view.
“Any opposition party worth its salt will want to keep asking questions about this until they are answered,” said Baran. “These are very serious allegations that have come out—attempting to compromise our democratic institutions and processes by hostile foreign powers … It would be irresponsible for any opposition party to not be asking questions about this until they’re satisfactorily resolved.”
Former NDP staffer Brad Lavigne, who is now a partner at Counsel Public Affairs, said he hopes the commission’s work “will be done not in the headlines.”
“Hopefully, the processes will not suffer from hyper-partisan attacks, because I don’t see any votes for any political party in overly-politicizing the process here,” he said. “It would just further corrode people’s assessment of Parliament.”
Lavigne said the political temperature on the issue going forward will largely be determined by what types of revelations come out of the inquiry.
“If the inquiry is hearing testimony in real-time, and it’s in the public arena, inadequacies or oversights by governments of the past—whether they be Liberal or Conservative—are certainly going to return the issue of who did-what-when to Parliament,” he said. “But I think it all depends on what testimony is heard.”
Former Liberal staffer Maurice Rioux, who is now director of government relations at Proof Strategies, said he expects the Liberals will find some breathing room on the issue this fall because all parties have accepted the process and the commissioner.
He also expects issues such as affordability to be dominant, pushing topics like foreign interference out of the day-to-day news cycle.
“Anytime they’re questioned on this now, the Liberals will get up in the House and say, ‘Hey, we got unanimous consent on … the judge and the terms of reference. Let her do her job,’” said Rioux.
The article was first published by The Hill Times.
Ian Campbell is a reporter and the deputy digital editor for The Hill Times, covering party politics, finance, health policy, federal-provincial relations, and the impact of new digital technologies on democracy. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University and has previously worked as an online reporter with CBC Newfoundland & Labrador. Campbell has also worked as a theatre producer, director, and educator. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Voices & Bridges publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive discussion and debate on important issues. Views represented in the articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the V&B.