Dispatch from the Front Line: This prime minister has 22 problems
Lots and lots of China. A bit of C-18. And ... Marg? Really? We're doing that again.
Welcome, Line readers. You’ll find our video below, and the podcast link is here, but please be advised that we recorded this just before Global News broke a major story on Friday evening. The podcast/video went partially stale accordingly. Watch and listen with that in mind.
Well, that was quite a week, eh?
The Line has been endeavouring to keep on top of all of the developments on the Chinese electoral interference file. The week brought quite a few. In fact, it surprised us when we realized that the prime minister’s big announcement of a suite of initiatives was actually only six days ago. It seemed a hell of a lot longer, especially because of all that has happened since, but no. It was Monday.
To keep this manageable, we’re going to break our recap down into two segments. One just on the news developments, and then our thoughts on what this means politically.
First, the news.
On Monday, as recounted here by a column written by Matt Gurney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a series of actions purportedly intended to get to the bottom of Chinese interference in our electoral processes. It was the first real recognition by the Liberal government that there was a twofold problem at play: for us, as a country and a democracy, and for them as a political party. But any hopes that we would be looking at the other side of a freshly turned leaf evaporated pretty quickly. By Tuesday, the day after the big announcements, the Liberals were right back to evading questions, sparring with reporters and filibustering, or outright avoiding, committee meetings.
Meanwhile, the news developments kept right on developing. The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that Wealth One, a Toronto-based bank that caters to Chinese-Canadians, has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for failing to comply with a federal law “designed to stop terrorist financing and the illegal concealment of the origins of funding.” The Globe reported later in the week that the foreign affairs ministry denied a visa to a Chinese diplomat late last year because the federal government “determined that Beijing was actually sending a political operative to conduct foreign-interference operations in Canada.”
Also this week, federal cabinet minister Seamus O’Regan released a very strange video that struck many, including us, as the kind of thing someone starts doing when testing the waters for a possible leadership run. Marc Garneau, Liberal, backbench MP, retired naval captain, former cabinet minister, and a literal goddamn astronaut, announced this week that he is leaving politics to spend more time with his family, effective fucking immediately.
Meanwhile, more news came out about the alleged Chinese interference in Canada itself. Hands-down, the biggest allegation was made by the Global News team, with Sam Cooper reporting on Friday that Vincent Ke, a Chinese-born Progressive Conservative MPP representing a riding in Toronto, is the intermediary who has been dispersing cash from China’s Toronto consulate to favoured political candidates, both Liberal and Conservative. (He denies this, calling Global’s report “false and defamatory.”) Late on Friday, the Ford government announced that Ke has voluntarily resigned from the Progressive Conservative caucus so that an impartial investigation may be arranged.
That story followed another published by Cooper at Global on Wednesday. The story largely recounted reporting done by Cooper in November, but included more details about the source documents Global is relying on. The story didn’t tell us more about what China is reportedly up to (and was attacked as old news, by some, on that basis). We disagreed. By putting more information about the source documents on the record, we read the story as challenging an emerging comms narrative that all this reporting may be the product of a few low-level reports, prepared by worker drones at CSIS and then relegated to collect dust on a shelf.
We aren’t done yet. The CBC got into the fight, after a long absence. The CBC’s radio and television broadcasters had done yeoman’s work covering developments on stories broken by other news outlets, but CBC News itself hadn’t put any points on the board. That changed this week when they reported the RCMP was investigating two so-called police stations operated by China in the Montreal area. Other such stations in Vancouver and Toronto had been reported on previously.
So yeah. March, right? Lots going on there. Two other items we would add, which won’t seem directly related, but will factor into our political analysis, is that we also have a budget coming up later this month, as well as a two-day visit by Joe Biden, president of the United States.
So where do we start with the political analysis?
First and foremost, as Gurney wrote on Tuesday, what the prime minister had proposed in his package of initiatives on Monday was probably only really going to work if the news developments stopped. They definitely have not. The government remains under intense pressure which will only ratchet up as further stories emerge — which we expect.
We would add that the conduct of the Liberals this week was disappointing, but not surprising. On Monday, they struck the right tone, but as is so often the case with this government, saying the right things is offered as a substitute for doing the right things. Even worse than inaction, indeed, were their actions for the rest of the week. It is impossible to watch the Liberals desperately filibustering at committee and reconcile that with what the PM said on Monday. You can’t talk about your commitment to get to the bottom of an issue while skipping meetings about that issue. The only possible conclusion here is that the PM’s announcement on Monday was an exercise in strategic communications — a tactic to buy time.
We would add that it is possible to read into the week’s developments a degree of concern among the Liberals themselves.