THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 25, Season 12
Sunday, March 12, 2023
Host: Eric Sorenson
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security
Eric Sorenson: As allegations of Chinese election interference mount, the Prime Minister shifts gears, but the opposition isn’t buying it.
I’m Eric Sorenson, sitting in for Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
No letup in opposition calls for a public inquiry. Justin Trudeau says he’ll appoint an independent special rapporteur to investigate instead. One of several steps the government is taking to restore trust, but is it too little and too late? We’ll ask the public safety minister.
And, lessons from down under: Is Australia’s strategy to counter foreign interference a model for Canada?
We saw more heated debate in Ottawa last week over foreign interference in Canadian politics. Cabinet ministers were grilled on what they knew about China’s attempts to interfere in Canada’s democracy. Opposition parties are calling for a public inquiry, and the Prime Minister says he won’t commit until a special rapporteur evaluates the situation. Although, even he seems to admit Canadians patience may be wearing thin.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “To be quite honest, I know that no matter what I say, Canadians continue to have questions about what we did.”
Eric Sorenson: With new allegations of interference arising seemingly every week, what is the path forward for the government? And joining us to talk about it is Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. Thank you for being here.
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Thank you, Eric.
Eric Sorenson: I want to start with the Prime Minister and just how he sounded there when he answered that question about Canadians that continue to have questions and part of the reason for that is because he’s not answering even simple questions. Nobody’s looking for details of the interference. They just want to know—well, what did he know? Like what—when did he learn about it? Did he learn about it?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well I would begin by saying that this is a complex issue, and since we took the reins of government in 2015, we’ve actually put in place the resources, measures, new authorities giving threat reduction powers to CSIS, for example, but with the additional corresponding transparency that is required through the creation of a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, a National Security Intelligence Review Agency; two panels who reviewed the circumstances of the elections in 2019 and 2021, who verified that those elections were free and fair. I think that’s important for Canadians to know. And most recently, we have stated our intention to imminently appoint an independent expert, a special rapporteur who will provide us with an option on the next practical steps that we need to take, to reassure Canadians that they can have confidence in their democratic institutions, including most especially their election. So transparency is important, and we will continue to raise the bar on that front so that Canadians can be reassured that our institutions are secure from foreign interference.
Eric Sorenson: But the heat is intense not because of any of that. That’s all good, but the heat is intense because of allegations of clandestine transfers of Chinese funds into candidates, possibly Liberal candidates. That money being funnelled in that way, the questions I guess then I have to start with you because the Prime Minister hasn’t answered it, were you briefed on the memos on which Global News has reported?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well again, this is not a new issue. And the Prime Minister’s received briefings. I have received briefings. Other colleagues have received briefings when it comes to matters that touch on national security, for obvious reasons. We can’t simply disclose ever last detail of it because we want to protect the people that work in the space of national security, including human sources. We want to protect the technology and the tactics that we use to protect our institutions. But that’s why, Eric, we’ve created bodies and agencies that do have access to that classified information so that we can balance the need to protect our national security, while at the same time, raising the bar on transparency. And that is an important balance and a value that we will continue to adhere to.
Eric Sorenson: But the perception issue is that you’re not answering sort of simple questions not about the details, but just about awareness. You know, the House and Procedures Affairs Committee, for example, want to ask Katie Telford, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, some questions. The Liberals are filibustering that. They’re just time and again, your party, your government seems to be kind of blocking information about the most simple things and it looks bad. Do you see how it looks bad?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well I would reassure you and your viewers that we understand that Canadians do have questions and that’s why we have sent our top officials to the parliamentary committee. Earlier last week, we heard from Minister Joly and Minister Leblanc, to speak before the parliamentary committee on this very subject. If I’m invited, of course, I will be happy to go and talk about the important work that we are doing in public safety, because it is important that we explain to Canadians how it is that we are putting in place the measures that our agencies use to address and mitigate against foreign interference, but while at the same time, are respecting the Charter, respecting their rights, respecting their privacy. Those are important principles that inform all of the work that we do and will now move quickly, we will, to appoint a special rapporteur who will work with the NSICOP, who will work with NSIRA, who’ve been charged with task of looking into foreign interference so that we can reinforce Canadians’ confidence in their institutions.
Eric Sorenson: You know, there was a memo from a senior official, Global News reported on from January of last year. This is very recent now, warning of alleged Chinese interference. You were minister of public safety, did you read that memo? Were you briefed on it?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: As I said, we get briefings all of the time when it comes to matters of national security, and for obvious reasons, we have to show sensitivity to our laws, including the important principles in our law that requires us to protect the classified nature of that information because lives can hang in the balance. The way in which we protect our institutions can hang in the balance, with the same that we do this work every day with great care and attention, but we also understand that it’s important to be up front, to shine a light on this work. And so our commitment, which is I think has been demonstrated through the work of the NSICOP, through the work of NSIRA. These are two agencies again, which have robust access to that very classified information for the purposes of being accountable and being up front with Canadians as much as possible that were created by our government. And it’s important, I think, to highlight to Canadians that no government has taken more concrete action than ours when it comes to fighting against foreign interference.
Eric Sorenson: I want to ask you about the Foreign Agent Registry. You announced consultations. Are you committed that there will be a Foreign Agent Registry?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: That’s precisely the purpose of the exercise, is to have a thoughtful conversation with all Canadians and stakeholders so that it will inform the creation of a foreign registry. And it is important, as we’ve heard numerous colleagues of mine express, the anxiety, the fear, the concern of being stigmatized by virtue of who they are. I mean I made that announcement alongside my colleague Minister Ng, who pointed out that members of the Chinese-Canadian community are indeed very worried about being painted with the same brush when it comes to these allegations. That’s unfair. They have every right to participate in society fully, including in our politics. And I’m fortunate to be able to work with a wide array of colleagues in Parliament when it comes to the work that we do in our democracy. But it’s also important to point out that as we have this consultation in the creation of a foreign transparency registry that we get it right. That it does ensure that the Charter is a value that will be protected so that Canadians can have confidence in the way in which these authorities will be used to protect them.
Eric Sorenson: There was a bill in the Senate. A year ago, you supported that bill. You said in a Senate hearing the issue was pressing and urgent. Why didn’t you act before now then?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well I think you may have slightly overstated what I said, which was I was prepared to work with Senator Housakos and the study of his bill and we continue to have discussions with him and with all parliamentarians. But I also want to be sure that parliamentarians have an opportunity to contribute to this consultation as the rest of the Canadians will over the course of the coming weeks, which was important. We started that consultation process officially on Friday. It will conclude on May 9th, and from there, we’ll take the next practical steps to creating this important tool. It’s not a panacea. It is not a cure all for the fight against foreign interference, but it will be stacked on all of the other measures that this government has put into place, so that we can be sure that we protect our institutions.
Eric Sorenson: Michael Wernick, the former clerk of the Privy Council, told us on this show last week that this is something that could be up and running by this summer. Do you have a timetable? Like can you commit to like getting it up and running before the next election and possibly as early as just a few months from now?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well I think we’ve committed to having a very focused conversation around how it is that we want to inform the creation of this foreign registry. I also want to be sure that we get the threshold right, that we get the parameters of the authority’s right. We want to foster transparency around legitimate activities of foreign actors. We also want to deter and discourage activities that go beyond legitimate diplomacy and that’s one of the reasons why it’s important that we have this conversation, and most importantly, we want to engage Canadians. We want to bring Canadians along. You’ve been saying throughout the course of our conversation that Canadians are concerned. Well one of the ways in which we can allay their concerns is to be open about the way in which we crate the tools, the way we create the authorities for our national security agencies. This is one way in which we can do that.
Eric Sorenson: Last question: The RCMP has shut down a number of so-called Chinese police stations. These stations that are used, it seems, to intimidate Chinese Canadians—Chinese citizens any way in this country. Has anyone been arrested or charged? Are there any consequences?
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Well the first thing I want to say about these so-called police stations is that any effort by a foreign state actor to interfere through this kind of initiative or anything else is absolutely unacceptable, and Canadians can be reassured that the RCMP have acted quickly to shut down five so-called police stations. They’re now investigating two others in Montreal and it shows an ongoing vigilance and care and attention to dealing with foreign interference on Canadian soil. With regards to the details of those investigations, you know that it is not elected Members of Parliament that carry out these investigations. Rather, that’s our law enforcement agencies like the RCMP. I’m confident that they will continue to be vigilant and very clear eyed about this work, as will this government when it comes to fighting against foreign interference and protecting our institutions.
Eric Sorenson: I appreciate your willingness to come in and face questions, and I expect there will be more questions as time goes on. Thank you Minister Mendicino.
Marco Mendicino, Public Safety Minister: Thank you very much.
Eric Sorenson: Up next, what Australia is doing to fight foreign interference in its democracy?
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: “This is happening all day, every day by foreign state actors, particularly China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.”
Eric Sorenson: When it comes to legislation on how best to fight foreign interference, Australia is often cited as a model for Canada to follow. Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme has been effect since 2018, to combat foreign interference in everything, from government, to media, and from academic, to industry.
Joining us now to talk about this is Opposition MP Andrew Wallace. He’s deputy chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. Mr. Wallace, it’s great to have you from Canberra because Australia’s policies and experiences, I think, can be our window on our future from your experiences. So, Australia’s government passed these laws five years ago, tell us how pervasive foreign interference is in Australia?
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Well good morning, Eric, and good morning to all your viewers. Look, this is a significant problem, not just for Australia but for Liberal democracies across the world. We identified a number of years ago through programs like when Huawei wanted to get into our 5G network as far as they wanted to contract to establish our 5G network. We were the first country in the world to block that and we were very pleased to see that the fellow Five Eyes countries followed suit. So this is an issue which we have been dealing and grappling with for some time. I think the experience that you have had in Canada has really replicated what we’ve experienced in Australia for a number of years.
Eric Sorenson: So with your laws, what’s working would you say?
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Look, we have a suite of laws in Australia which deals with foreign influence and then goes through to foreign interference. The first thing to note, really, is that with our foreign influence transparency scheme, which is currently being reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee at the moment, it’s not perfect, far from it. You know it was introduced in 2018. We’re undergoing a statutory review at the moment. We are identifying instances that the laws are capturing people that it probably shouldn’t be capturing and not capturing people that it should be capturing. But essentially, the foreign influence transparency scheme, it is what it says. It’s all about bringing people who may be trying to, or possibly trying to influence our democratic processes out into the open. So it basically relies on four pillars. There’s a registration component. There’s a disclosure component. There’s a reporting component and an enforcement component. As a Liberal democracy, we don’t mind other governments or companies or individuals trying to at least have a say in our policies and how we govern in Australia, but what is really important, is that that is a transparent process and that’s the key.
Eric Sorenson: Well and part of that seems to be that your spy chief, Mike Burgess, gives an annual threat assessment. Kind of brings it home to your population how serious the issues are even if he can’t give some details on that, and we don’t have like the head of CSIS kind of laying things out for us here. Is that a useful exercise?
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Absolutely. So Mike Burgess is an outstanding director-general of our internal security service, ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Organization. So he is—he provides an update every year. He identified at his most recent briefing, which I was at. And basically in that briefing, he identified that the level of foreign interference that is currently—that we’re experiencing in Australia now is at its highest than ever before, and that includes the Cold War. So we are seeing a tremendous ratcheting up of foreign influence and foreign interference more particularly in Australian politics today at unprecedented levels and that is of great concern to him, to ASIO, and to all our security agencies. That has to be said. It has to be said, too, Eric, that Australians are now, by virtue of that sort of transparency from ASIO and our security agencies and our politicians that Australians are seized of this issue and are very cognizant that there are many, let’s be frank, attacks on our democracy, on our businesses, on government platforms. This is happening all day, every day, by foreign state actors, particularly China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Eric Sorenson: And I think that’s an important point because here, we’re kind of publicly just coming to this issue. We’re very much focused on the political side of interference, but you’re saying that it’s media. It’s academia. It’s business. Like it can be—it’s insidious in how interference can work its way throughout society.
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Yeah, and look, there’s one aspect that you left off there, Eric, is social media. So, you know, what we are seeing is a direct attack on our democratic principles, but also the very fabric of our Australian society. So, you know, when our adversaries—our adversaries win when we turn against each other. And, you know, I have visited your great country many, many times. I love Canada. It’s probably the country that Australia is most similar as far as culture goes. And our adversaries win when we turn on each other. And the—what we’re seeing is these automatic chat bots which operate on social media, which are vitriolic, which are really quite terrible and, you know, you get that whole social medial pile on. And a lot of that is being done by bots, driven out of these countries. And, you know, these countries, these you know—these sorts of countries like China and Russia, they win when we turn against each other. And that’s what’s happening at a social media level. It’s important that people understand that. I don’t think we really quite have a good handle on that yet.
Eric Sorenson: You and Australians have been watching what’s happened recently in Canada: China’s interference in recent elections. Has that been an eye-opener and are Canada’s allies among the Five Eyes? Is there concern that this country is not acting quickly enough on this issue?
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Look, the Five Eyes is an incredibly important arrangement between Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. We are trusted allies and partners. It is—the security of our five countries, both from a defence perspective and an internal security perspective, really relies—and has to be said terrorism as well, very much so—really relies upon us trusting one another. So it is important that we demonstrate to each other that we have got the necessary protections in place. We need to stand together and we need to pushback against this sort of authoritarian threats and pressure and economic coercion that we in Australia, I think, we’re the first to face and now certainly what we have and are continuing to experience in Australia, I know that the same is happening in Canada as a result of certain actions that the Canadian Government have taken and that’s no criticism of the Canadian Government. That is just simply the Chinese Government not getting their way and trying to economically coerce through trade sanctions and the like, the Canadian Government. You know, might is not right. And, you know, for eons, people of good will have pushed back against that concept of might is right and we must continue to do so.
Eric Sorenson: Well it’s a serious issue that Australia has been confronting for some time now in a quite public way. And I thank you for sharing the challenges that you’re facing because it’s very much what lies before us right now, Mr. Wallace. Thank you.
Andrew Wallace, Australian MP, Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Thanks very much, Eric and good luck in your endeavours and keep pushing. You’re on the right side of history.
Eric Sorenson: Up next, after a pretty heated week in Ottawa politics, Liberal MP Marc Garneau offered some sage advice in his final speech in the House of Commons
Eric Sorenson: And now one last thing. There are high moments and low moments in political discourse, and last week here in Ottawa we saw both. Ill-tempered accusations, undeniable disdain.
Justin Trudeau: “I see the leader of the Opposition trying to backtrack from his heinous and disgusting accusations.”
Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “He’s not interested in protecting the safety of the people serving this country.”
Anthony Rota, Speaker of the House: “Order! On both sides … Order!”
Eric Sorenson: That kind of ranker happens in politics but not always. Marc Garneau, a former astronaut described a job that is noble and courageous, and he wasn’t talking about being the first Canadian to fly into space. He was talking about running for political office and the noble job of parliamentarian.
Marc Garneau, Retired Astronaut and Liberal MP: “Let me issue a challenge to everyone in this chamber. Arrive each day in this House with the firm intention of showing respect for your colleagues and for this extraordinary place. Be dignified.”
Eric Sorenson: And then he spoke directly to the Opposition.
Marc Garneau, Retired Astronaut and Liberal MP: “I know that every single one of you comes here wanting to make Canada a better place. We might have different views about how to do it, and that’s fine, but when it all is said and done, there’s much more that unites us than divides us.”
Eric Sorenson: Marc Garneau retired last week after a career in space and in politics, two professions that served this country.
And that’s our show for today. We’ll see you next Sunday on The West Block. I’m Eric Sorenson. Thanks for watching.