The Real Lessons from the Phoney Chinese Election Interference Scandal

Hyper-partisan politics and shoddy reporting created a dangerous frenzy.

by Michael Harris

So David Johnston is a hack cashing in on a jammy per diem, the prime minister is a rank manipulator, and the report by a former governor general into alleged Chinese interference in Canadian elections, is just a little back-scratching from one old canoeing buddy to another.

That’s the latest Trudeau trashing coming down the pike, including blow-back from a spoiled brat media that screeched for a public inquiry — only to get a report that said the evidence doesn’t show the Trudeau government allowed or tolerated Chinese interference.

A report that said opposition politicians engaged in an “excessively partisan way” which eroded trust in Canadian institutions.

A report that says some of the anonymous “scoops” featured by several Canadian news agencies “misconstrued” leaked intelligence information, and in some cases simply got it wrong.

In particular, Johnston found that there was no evidence that China actually funnelled cash to 11 candidates, seven Liberals and four Conservatives. His definitive finding? No MP or provincial elected representative received money.

Johnston also debunked another nasty speculation that may already have ruined the career of former Liberal MP Han Dong. There were media stories and charges from opposition politicians that Dong advised an official at the Chinese consulate to lengthen the detention of former detainees Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

“The allegation is false,” Johnston found. “Dong discussed the ‘two Michaels’ with a [People’s Republic of China] official but did not suggest to the official that the PRC extend their detention.” It remains to be seen if Dong will be allowed to return to the Liberal caucus.

In the rush to judgment that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was playing footsie with the Chinese government, a lot of people who should have known better forgot something of fundamental importance in the alleged Chinese interference story. Top secret material is at the centre of this dustup.

Why is that important? It means normal rules do not apply. It is against the law to reveal classified information, even to clear up the many misconceptions surrounding this case. And for good reason. Answering these kind of unsourced leaks, even by publicly providing the missing context for them, could reveal sources and methods. In the spy world, that could cost lives.

Despite that, both the Liberal government and Special Rapporteur Johnston know that the Chinese interference story, with all its partisan bluster and flawed information, has raised questions about how seriously the government took this whole affair. What clarity can be given, must be given. So Trudeau offered all opposition leaders a security clearance that would allow them to look at the same documents that Johnston saw. Johnston himself invited the leader of the Opposition to meet and talk about the findings of his report.

And guess what Pierre Poilievre did? After slandering and smearing everyone involved in producing Johnston’s report as untrustworthy, conflicted or conniving, he refused to meet with the special rapporteur. He also declined to get the security clearance offered by the PM that would have allowed him to see for himself why Johnston concluded what he did.

The man who insisted on a public inquiry to lay bare the facts of this dubious story simply didn’t want to know them himself. Because perhaps then he would have to deal with another inconvenient truth laid out by Johnston. “The challenge is this: what has allowed me to determine whether there was in fact interference cannot be publicly discussed.” In other words, Poilievre couldn’t proceed with his campaign of innuendo and slander.

Nor have Canadians heard a word from Poilievre on the other elephant in this particularly partisan room. What about the leaker? Johnston writes that finding the leaker is a “matter of urgency.”

In the media and political opposition, the assumption has been that the leaker is a public-spirited person, if not a hero. What if they’re a disgruntled employee settling old scores? Or a political partisan? What if they’re not even a member of the Canadian intelligence establishment, but came across this information, such as it is, in other ways? No one knows for sure. Before canonizing someone, best to make sure they’re a saint.

Poilievre wants to be prime minister some day and that will mean protecting the country’s secrets. Is championing a law-breaking source — and refusing to be briefed on the real facts of the case — how he will do it? He certainly championed the illegal trucker’s strike that paralyzed Ottawa for three weeks. Poilievre is all about opportunism and political advantage, not principles.

The party that is now painting the special rapporteur as less than impartial seems to have forgotten Stephen Harper’s words when he appointed Johnston as governor general. After noting that the accomplished academic “represents the best of Canada,” Harper went on to say this: “He represents hard work, dedication, public service and humility. I am confident he will continue to embody these traits in his new role as the Crown’s representative in Canada.”

It is also worth remembering that Harper turned to Johnston to advise on a public inquiry into the business dealings between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber. Banish the thought, but is Poilievre implying that that Harper had bad judgment?

Given the top secret and other classified information at issue here, it was a mistake from the get-go to push for a public inquiry into alleged Chinese interference in Canadian elections. A mistake in every way but one. For years, the Conservative Party of Canada has been looking for a scandal to do what they have been unable to do at the polls — take down Justin Trudeau.

They have tried everything: Blackface, the WE Charity affair, dubious vacation choices, funny socks, messy hair, vaccine and mask mandates, meddling in justice issues, invoking emergency measures during the occupation of Ottawa. And now the charge of doing nothing about Chinese fiddling in Canadian elections.

Despite all the political smoke, Johnston is right. A public inquiry would run into the same need to take evidence in secret and keep important information confidential. It is a fair alternative for Johnson to hand over his 55-page report to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, as well as to the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency so that Parliament can review his conclusions.

His report will be accompanied by a classified annex which refers members of both the committee and the agency to the relevant secret documents Johnson used to write his report. “That’s Parliament functioning as it should be, with an oversight role.” Rational, right?

And that’s the trouble. A lot of people these days are worried about the deep state. Myself, I am more concerned about the shallow state. That is a place where citizens get bad information and act on it without reflection. That is a place where politicians operate in bad faith across the board, and call their power-mongering and blind ambition “opposition.” That is a place where debates eschew reason for passionate partisanship, and everyone loses.

Hopefully, Pierre Poilievre has not quite taken us that far. As Thomas Paine observed, “ To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason… is like administering medicine to the dead.”


Michael Harris is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One. You can read more of his articles at his website.

The article was first published by The Tyee.

The cover photo by Sean Kilpatrick via the Canadian Press.


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