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Matt Gurney: After weeks of getting punched in the face, the Liberals accept reality
This is the gun ban playbook all over again. The LPC denies there's a problem, attacks the critics, waits a bit, and then does a smarter thing, weeks late.
By: Matt Gurney
Let’s acknowledge something right at the top: no one really knows what the hell the prime minister proposed yesterday. Not in any specific policy sense, at any rate. But boy, did we ever learn something about how the Liberals are viewing this politically.
After weeks of bobbing and weaving and throwing out fistfuls of increasingly ridiculous chaff, Justin Trudeau has belatedly agreed to a series of actions to probe Chinese electoral interference in Canada. And maybe other interference? We don’t know. We do know it’ll involve NSICOP, which is an acronym in desperate need of an agreed-upon pronunciation, if Monday’s press conference was any guide. NSICOP is a joint House-Senate committee that reviews various matters relating to Canada’s national security and intelligence (read this on its website and you’ll know more than 99.9 per cent of Canadians do about NSICOP). There’s also going to be a splash of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), plus a special rapporteur. The special rapporteur will apparently be given broad powers and, should they recommend a full public inquiry, the PM will accept that.
Hell of an endorsement for someone who hasn’t been selected yet. It’s almost like the PM decided he had to make an announcement before he was ready to actually share many details about that announcement, for some reason. Like the announcement itself was the point. Weird, eh? Wonder what that was about. In any case, all we know is it’ll be an eminent Canadian.
Shoutout to all you eminent Canadians out there, I guess. Brush up those cover letters.
A little more seriously, it all sounds very impressive, and I’m reassured by smart people that all these layers of intelligence oversight are an improvement over the way things were even a few years ago. Sure. I buy that. But until we get some sense of how NSICOP, NSIRA and the yet-to-be-named eminent rapporteur are going to all work together, what the mandate will be, what powers the rapporteur will have beyond bountiful eminence and all the rest, honestly, who knows?
It shouldn’t need saying, but almost certainly does: the allegations we have seen in recent weeks are serious. They are serious both because of the possible threats to Canadian national security, and also because of the alleged inaction by senior officials, including the prime minister, who when warned about threats to our security, apparently did … not much. There honestly might be a very reasonable explanation for all of this, as The Line has noted in recent dispatches, but the prime minister and his party have, to the date, preferred to avoid offering any explanation, and instead have attacked those asking the questions and demanded a crackdown on the leakers. Okay, then. Duly noted.
That started to change last night, but so far we don’t have much. It was a press conference. The PM said stuff. Marco Mendicino said some stuff, too, some of which may ultimately prove to be reasonably honest and accurate. (Most of what he said was just reannouncing things he’d already said, which is already a bit truthy, but hey, baby steps, right?)
So for now, we just have to wait and see. Once we get the details, we can start trying to figure out what the hell this will mean. And, critically, we’ll find out if it’s something the opposition parties can live with.
That’s the policy side, at any rate. Politically, what we saw Monday was a rushed, half-baked announcement, responding to a political reality that was obvious to everyone outside the PMO weeks ago. In the face of mounting concern and allegations, in the public and also among the opposition parties, they finally accepted they couldn’t bluster and counterattack their way through it.
They sure gave it the ol’ college try for a few weeks there, though, didn’t they?
How many weeks is worth considering. I don’t know exactly when we want to say this whole kerfuffle began. There have been reports in credible places, and far more rumours, for years. None of it is new. But just to get a sense of how this latest phase developed, Global News’s Sam Cooper had big stories on February 8th and 24th. That was 27 and 11 days ago, respectively. Others followed. In the Globe and Mail, the dynamic duo of Robert Fife and Steven Chase began their latest volley of stories on February 17th. That was 18 days ago, and they’ve kept up a pretty steady pace ever since. Somewhere in that time span, this turned into The Story. Let’s just round it all off and say “two or three weeks” since this all got started.
And during those two or three weeks, we saw all the usual things we’d expect to see from the Trudeau government. Denials. Evasions. Doubledowns. Counterattacks. Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell, for instance, said of Conservative questions on the matter that, “We’ve seen our neighbours to the south and what happens when you start demonizing democratic institutions and when you start undermining their legitimacy.”
This was 18 days before her boss suddenly agreed that we needed to take extra steps to safeguard our democratic institutions.
Speaking of the boss, after a period of denials and dodges, he tried dark warnings about “unelected security officials dictating” our democracy — that was a really important principle, he said. He also warned about the dangers of “anti-Asian racism.”
That was eight days before agreeing Canada needed a special rapporteur and some as yet to be determined secret blend of various federal acronyms.
The way that the Liberals responded wasn’t shocking. They only have a few plays left in their playbook, and we’ve seen something just like this only a few weeks ago. (Which is why I’m wondering if they actually only have the single play left, come to think of it.) The Liberals have responded to the barrage of news stories over Chinese interference exactly the way they did over their controversial gun-control amendments from the fall. First, deny there’s a problem. Then accuse anyone saying there’s a problem of being Donald Trump 2.0 or somesuch. Then just cut right to the chase and call them racist. When that doesn’t work, wait a few days to see if the problem goes away. When it doesn’t — indeed, when it gets worse — that’s when you finally admit that you can’t just yell “DISINFORMING MAGA BIGOTS!” at people and watch as your problem magically evaporates.
With guns, after everything else failed, they withdrew the amendments (though I imagine they’ll try again, though probably with no better luck). With China interference, it was agreeing to some kind of process. All the unfilled blanks notwithstanding, even the fact that something is being agreed to shows a dawning of political reality in the PMO: ignoring this and hoping the leaks stop if you called enough people racist Trumpers wasn’t going to work. Clearly, sometime in the last few days, the PM and his staff reached the acceptance stage, and concluded that either they had to admit that there was enough here to warrant some kind of serious process, or they could just start randomly talking about abortion in the hopes that people fell for that.
No, no, wait. They tried that anyway.
It would be fascinating to know what specifically led to the mental breakthrough that enabled Monday’s announcement. Weeks of denials, evasions and counterattacks, a day of performatively fretting about abortion, and then, zap!, we’re getting an rapporteur — an eminent one! — and a process. Maybe they looked at some internal polling. Maybe they’re worried about a big scoop that’s yet to land. Or maybe they’re just tired of being on the defensive and figured that the proposals would stand a decent chance of smothering the issue to death with pillows stuffed with bureaucracy and abbreviations.
It might. Though weeks behind reality, this is precisely what the smart political play always was, and it might not be too late. The public has a very short attention span, and God only knows what fresh hell the news gods will drop on us next. This really could work. If the eventually agreed upon process takes a long time, this might all be forgotten by the time any findings are released. Anyone who doesn’t think this can work is kidding themselves.
But the problem for the Liberals is that there is no reason to think that the hits aren’t going to keep coming. Trudeau might get away with pointing at all he announced Monday and saying, “Hey, we have a process, we’re taking it seriously, let it play out.” He might not, though. The revelations might be too bad, the NDP might get nervous about propping this up. The public might sour, and Trudeau’s razor-thin vote margins might erode just enough to drop the floor out from under him. And as long as the hits keep coming, the government will be forced to remain on its back foot, unable to talk about the stuff they’d rather talk about. Like abortion, apparently.
We’ll see. Your guess is as good as mine. But we have now seen, yet again, this government spend weeks getting punched in the face by reality while trying all their usual tricks before eventually giving up and changing course.
And in a strange way, that’s what fascinates me the most. Chinese electoral interference is a big, important story. It deserves serious attention. But it’s the political dimension that is pulling me in. What the hell did the Liberals think they were doing these last few weeks? And before that with the hunting rifles? And a few other recent examples, too.
They used to be much better at this. Something has gone wrong with them. Something a special rapporteur can’t fix. Not even a really eminent one.
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