The West Block transcript- Episode 20, Season 13

THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 20, Season 13
Sunday, January 28, 2024

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest:
Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor
Vina Nadjibulla, Vice President of Research and Strategy,
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Inside Politics Panel:
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star

Location:
Ottawa Studio

Mercedes Stephenson: As crucial hearings into foreign interference start Monday, the list of countries accused of medalling in Canada’s democracy rose.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. The West Block starts now.

China, Russia, and now India, have been accused of interfering in Canadian elections. Will Canadians find out what actually happened and get the answers they’re looking for?

And our inside politics panel tackles the busy week ahead, with the House returning and leadership questions plaguing the Liberal leader.

It’s an issue that strikes at the heart of our democracy and questions the limits of our national security.

The federal inquiry into foreign interference starts tomorrow in Ottawa. It’s expected to highlight China’s level of aggression. It might also aggravate already tense relations with India, and could reveal attempted medalling by Russia. It’s the next step in what has been a long and sometimes controversial investigation.

Erin O’Toole, Former Conservative Leader: “We must acknowledge that we’ve not been doing enough to safeguard our democracy.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That was former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole after he says that he and some in his party were targeted by China.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had warned Beijing wanted a Liberal government victory in 2021.

After much political pressure, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed David Johnston as independent special rapporteur, to look into foreign interference. But soon after, questions were raised about what critics called his cozy relationship with the PM.

[00:01:48] Unknown Speaker: “Why do you lead them?”

Mercedes Stephenson: Johnston later resigned. The Commission, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, is expected to complete an interim report by May 3rd, and deliver a final report by the end of the year.

Joining us now are former National Security Advisor and former CSIS Director Dick Fadden, and Vina Nadjibulla, Vice-President of Research and Strategy at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Welcome to you both. Great to have you on the show. An issue that I know you’ve both been tracking very closely, not only in your current iterations but your professional lives.

Dick, you know you were in charge of national security for this country. When you look at foreign interference as we prepare to head into this inquiry, how serious of a threat is it for Canada?

Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Well I think it’s very serious and it’s not serious just for Canada. But I think the starting point has to be that we recognize that China, and a couple of other countries, Russia being one of them, are real adversaries. They’re just not our competitors in the world. They’re out to change the world and they’re out to use virtually any method they can to attain that goal. Foreign interference has been going on here and in the countries of our closest allies for some time now. I think foreign interference, too, has to be defined broadly. It’s not just interfering with our democratic institutions. It’s trying to change policy. It’s interfering with diasporas, both the Chinese and others. And I think we have come very, very late to acknowledging that this is a problem. I mean it took the India-Pacific Strategy before the federal government would deem that policy or strategy, to acknowledge that China was a strategic adversary. That’s the beginning, but we have a fair bit to do to catch up. And for the love of me, I don’t understand why it took the government so much time to accept that we needed a public inquiry, and I think the downside to that right now is that they may well be using this as a reason for not proceeding on a number of fronts to deal with foreign interference without waiting for the end of the inquiry.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina, do you feel that the government has been reluctant to deal with this as Dick does, and why do you think that that would be?

Vina Nadjibulla, Vice President of Research and Strategy,
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada: Thanks Mercedes. I very much agree with Dick that we have been much slower in both recognizing the real threat that foreign interference is to our democracy and to our way of life, as well as putting in place the necessary responses to be able to detect, investigate and deter this. The United Kingdom, Australia, U.S., they have been working on this for the last five, 10 years. We’re just beginning that work. I also agree that we don’t really have to wait for the outcome of the public inquiry to be able to put in place the things that will help and protect people that are most at risk, so particularly, our diaspora community. The best defence against foreign interference is to inform the public how to recognize it, how to respond to it. It’s also ability to change some of our laws, bring about the legislative change, as well as the necessary administrative changes within CSIS, within RCMP, to then be able to investigate and hold to account people who engage in this. So yes, I would agree that we have been slow, I think in part because we are in general, quite slow in responding to national security issues. This is the one issue which is both a foreign policy issue as well as a domestic national security issue, and in the past we just simply haven’t prioritized them.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dick, I know that you’ve advocated strongly for transparency in this process as we go forward and you’re going to be testifying about that on Wednesday. How do you find the balance between protecting national security with what could be some very sensitive information but also projecting this and addressing it in a public forum so that people know what’s actually going on, because I know there have been concerns from some about accountability here and that if you don’t know what the government knew and when they knew it, not just the interferences being undertaken, you don’t get that accountability. How do you find that balance?

Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Well I think you have to start with your default position being I’m going to go public. Now the government has indicated as it set up this inquiry that it’s going to be open to making as much information available as possible, but I think we have to do this in the context of Canada as compared to allies, to use the same approach as [00:06:08], we over classify and we classify far more than our allies and I think we have to find a way of dealing with that, not just in the context of this inquiry but more broadly. But I think that I will—I believe tell the inquiry this on Wednesday, a large chunk of this is culture. It’s not the legislation and it’s not the regulations. But our default position within government, and I don’t mean just Mr. Trudeau’s, I mean generally within government, we classify and we don’t want to talk about these things. So a lot can be made public without massive changes in policy or regulation or legislation. And I think that the commissioner should point to other countries and their ability to talk about these things openly. I mean to give you one concrete example, the case of Mr. Nijjar: we basically said nothing, then the United States Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against his colleagues in the United States and all sorts of information has been made public, and oddly enough, there have been no real negative repercussions from doing that. So we have to be able to take a few risks. We have to be able to change our culture here and now, and that’s both within the Public Service, within CSIS, the RCMP and elsewhere but also within the Ministry.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Vina, to Dick’s point, its Canadians are going to be watching this very closely but so is India, so is China, so is Russia. I would imagine so are a number of other countries. How do you anticipate that this is going to affect our foreign relations?

Vina Nadjibulla, Vice President of Research and Strategy,
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada: Yes. Foreign interference is already a major issue and now a bilateral relationship with China. As you know, a number of other countries have been able to have high level dialogue, including our allies: U.S., U.K., many European countries with China. China is not extending the same opportunity to Canada because of foreign interference and how this is unfolding. So that is continuing to put strain on that relationship. With respect to India, it’s already a challenging relationship, and just the addition of Indian to the inquiry, formerly the last couple of days, has created already backlash in Indian media. We’re watching that very closely. Of course, the argument that India is making is that all of this is essentially for political reasons that Prime Minister Trudeau is trying to deflect attention and blame, and essentially is trying to smear India’s reputation. So we’ll have to manage this very carefully, but that should not deter us from pursuing the public inquiry and getting to the bottom of the facts of what in fact happened and how the government has responded, because relations with certainly China, Russia, Iran, India, there’s complexity in that, and we have to be able to engage in dialogue when we must but also recognize that ultimately we have to protect our own national interest and our own people here at homes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Dick, I noticed that Iran was not included on the list of countries that are being looked at. There’s been more and more information about the Iranian regime trying to interfere and intimidate the diaspora here. Is it your view that Iran should be included?

Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Yes it is. On the other hand, I think the commissioner has a real challenge. She has not been given a great deal of time to deal with this. I mean that’s a procedural issue, but I think any country on which we have substantive information that they’re engaging in foreign interference should be included. Now it will be for her to determine, you know, the range that she applies to each country. But to ignore, given the public information that we have about Iran in the context of the inquiry, I think will just raise questions that she won’t be able to answer. So there may be two or three other countries, too, that are worth including. But I think she is operating under a timeframe that makes it almost impossible, in my view, to deal with all of these issues substantively. So if I were the commissioner, and I never will be, I would say report at the end of this year, but then ask for another six to eight months to complete things. There’ll probably be an election then and nobody will be paying a great deal of attention, but we’re not going to have many opportunities to deal with foreign interference. We can’t have public inquiries, you know, every six months. Let’s be as broad as we possibly can within the timeframe that is available to the commission.

Mercedes Stephenson: You know we just have a few moments left, but how important is it that this inquiry succeeds?

Vina Nadjibulla, Vice President of Research and Strategy,
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada: It is critical. Foreign interference is a major challenge to our national security, to our democracy. There are people, particularly in the diaspora community that require full protection and again, I would echo completely what Dick said that we won’t have another opportunity. We have to be thorough. We have to do this with urgency and we have to do it in an inclusive and transparent manner so that people that are most affected get to participate and that this results in real changes. This is not an exercise just to have an inquiry. We need to see real changes to be able to defend ourselves better against these threats, which will persist in the coming years.

Mercedes Stephenson: Vina and Dick, I’m sure we’ll be speaking to you again soon as this inquiry unfolds. Thank you for joining us and sharing your expertise today.

Dick Fadden, Former National Security Advisor: Thank you.

Vina Nadjibulla, Vice President of Research and Strategy,
Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the prime minister rallied his caucus behind in ahead of the return to Parliament. But with the Conservatives leading in the polls, what’s his plan to turn things around? We talk strategy with the inside politics panel.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s shaping up to be a busy week here in Ottawa, with MPs back in the House tomorrow and the start of the foreign interference inquiry.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his cabinet and caucus to figure out priorities for this session, but also to try to cement his hold on a party that’s been trailing badly in the polls.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is meeting with his caucus today. The party is looking to maintain its momentum in the face of increasing attacks from the Liberals and the NDP.

To dig into all of this, I’m joined by our inside politics panel: The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife, and the Toronto Star’s deputy bureau chief Stephanie Levitz.

Great to have you back. Happy New Year. We haven’t seen you since December when we wrapped Parliament up. Now we’re coming back. A lot of it is sort of the same story, Bob, of the Liberals struggling in the polls, the Conservatives advancing. Justin Trudeau on Friday met with his caucus and had sort of this unified image behind him, coming in the wake of a week where David Lemetti, the former justice minister, quit at basically scorch earth on his way out of being very unhappy with the party. Ken McDonald, the backbench MP who had called out Trudeau over the carbon tax came out and called for a leadership review, which he then walked back, I’m sure, after some calls from PMO. Do you think that Justin Trudeau was effective in trying to present this united front?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: No. He’s got the same problem that we saw from the summer when members of Parliament came back and the Liberal caucus was very leery because of these terrible, terrible polls and an economy that is not doing very well and a housing crisis, and that’s still is the problem. And he tried in his speech to caucus, to rally the troops against Pierre Poilievre, making him out to be, you know, this MAGA Republican guy. We have to go after him and he’s dangerous to society. But, you know, if you watch the vibes in that room, yeah they clapped him but it wasn’t enthusiastic. They weren’t—you know they weren’t really enthusiastic about him. You could see the sense of can this guy pull it off? I’m not so sure. That’s the feeling I got from watching the Liberal MPs. And there is a lot of discussion. We all know when they go to bars and they go to restaurants about whether this guy has what it takes to win the next election campaign and most of them are not really sure that that’s possible and they’re waiting to see if he’s actually going to step down and how long that will take for a leadership review to take place. I mean, look at David Lametti who said oh, of course, you know, he has the right to be the Liberal leader and run again if he wants to, but then he says but you know those polls, they were really bad.

Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, it seemed like he was trying some new things in his speech as well, both calling out individual Conservatives, including people who might run, and supporting individual backbenchers in his party, names of which most of our viewers have never heard. Do you think he’s trying to change gears? Or are they taking a new approach?

Stephanie Levitz: There’s two different things happening, potentially. One is understanding the brand Trudeau is the brand that’s the problem. The question of whether Canadians are done as a whole with the Liberal world view, that they’re done with the idea of a Liberal government, or are they done with Justin Trudeau? The polls suggest he’s never been more unpopular. And one way to sort of distract from yourself is to say well, hey, it’s not just about me. Look at these wonderful people I have, and I think that messaging when you’re dealing with, you know, Lametti—I guess at that moment when he gave that speech, we didn’t know Lametti had quit yet—but you have Lametti, you have Ken McDonald to point to and highlight the work of caucus because the thing that will toss a leader out faster than anything else is bad caucus management. If MPs feel like they’re not being listened to, if they feel they’re being dismissed, if they feel their concerns aren’t being taken seriously. The converse of that is to highlight the work that they’re doing. That makes people feel good, gives them a clip they can show to their constituents and it helps sort of reinforce some kind of allegiance to the boss.

When it comes to Mr. Poilievre, one of the, you know, the high level lines from the Liberal government is we don’t know what a Poilievre government would look like. And one of the things that they’re trying to show to Canadians, or try to suggest to Canadians, if you’d like to know how Mr. Poilievre might government, have a look at the folks that are running with him. And, you know, the Liberals are picking apart some of those people’s records, trying to attack them, trying to paint them in a certain corner. So to say that this is the Conservative Party, it’s not just don’t just think about Mr. Poilievre. Think about who he’s got around him and what that might mean for Canada of the futures.

Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, the Conservatives having their caucus meeting today, dealing with the situation where Tucker Carlson was in Alberta, appeared with Conservative Premier Danielle Smith. Of course the Liberals will tie that immediately to the federal Conservatives as they’ve been doing. What are the challenges for Mr. Poilievre coming into this sitting?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well first of all, he’s got to continue to keep the momentum. He’s got to—as long as the economy is not in good shape, it’s better for him. So a lot of this other stuff is noise. I mean, the Liberals are going to practice wedge politics. They’re very good at that. They’re going to try to scare Canadians, but the real issue for most Canadians is the economy and they like the message that he is saying, even though he has not provided many solutions as you know. But the danger he has is he’s trying to appeal to people who are also supporting the People’s Party, because that makes—that can make a difference in a number of ridings, so that Tucker Carlson type person, and the Liberals were right to go after him on that. And that’s the one area where I think he’s very vulnerable because he tends to lean in that direction anyway. Sometimes he skirts very, very close to the edge and that is an issue that if that can catch on with people—if people started saying wait a minute. This guy wants to be prime minister and he kind of favours people like Tucker Carlson. That is going to be an issue that’s going to frighten people off. So the Liberals are wise to go after him and use that as a wedge issue, but I don’t know how effective it is going to be as long as Justin Trudeau is the leader trying to present that message because people are really turned off by him. The polls show that.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the big decisions that was a court decision last week but it has political implications, was the federal court ruling that the government was not justified in using the Emergencies Act to clear out the convoy, something which Mr. Trudeau is clearly against the convoy, obviously he invoked the Emergencies Act and Mr. Poilievre supported the convoy. How does that play out politically for both parties, Steph?

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Well one, I mean it gives the folks like Mr. Poilievre and many, many, many of his supporters, sort of the paper. The paper to say hey, we were right. This was a violation of our rights. Look, the court said so. And it moves it beyond the realm of oh you guys are all just a bunch of anti-vaccine mandate conspiracy theorists into legalities and the questions of constitutionality and the Charter. And these are meaningful, you know, big things, but it also brings the issue back. And the question is: does anybody want to be talking about this anymore? To some degree, Mr. Poilievre does. We’re not done with it either. Justice Rouleau, who headed that public order commission, he had set a deadline. He wanted the government to respond to them in a year and let them know what’s going, so the issue itself isn’t gone. So for the Liberals to have themselves politically reminded of a time when the country was very divided, very angry, very scared and to have people remember that hey, that was the guy in charge then, and look now a judge is saying he didn’t do it right. That’s too bad, you know, for the Liberal government as they seek, I think as many Canadians actually seek, to come out of the pandemic, to sort of look forward and not back.

Mercedes Stephenson: And they’ve made the decision to appeal that. Of course it could go all the way to the Supreme Court, so we might not get a final, final decision until after the next election. But one of the things that we are going to see a decision on is—well decision, the outcome of—is the foreign interference inquiry, which is starting next week.

Bob, the Liberals really had to be pushed to do this and there’s some questions about whether we’re going to get information and accountability out of it. What are the politics of this inquiry?

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well, you know, the outcome of this inquiry, one would hope, is that we’re going—we should be able—we should be trying to find out whether or not the Liberal government—there were warnings from CSIS about Chinese interference that would have benefitted Liberals at the expense of Conservatives. We know those warnings went up the food chain to deputy ministers level. Did it go to the prime minister himself and the cabinet ministers? And if so, did they turn a blind eye or did they say basically the deputy ministers realized, you know they don’t want to know this, so I’m not going to tell them. That is the big issue here. But this inquiry also is in danger of faltering right from the get go because the Conservative Party is very upset at the fact that they have not been granted party status, unlike the government and two other—three other politicians: Michael Chan, deputy mayor of Markham and the former Ontario cabinet minister, and Han Dong the Liberal MP and an independent MP, have been granted status and they haven’t been. And that is an issue that they are very upset about that. They say it’s not—it doesn’t look like it’s fair. And diaspora groups, human rights groups who have fought and warned the country about Chinese interference in election campaigns and transnational repression in their communities are threatening to boycott because they are so concerned about these two—three gentlemen, particularly the two gentlemen: Mr. Han Dong and Mr. Chan, having the ability to be able to cross-examine them and to see confidential submissions that they may present, which they’re worried about is that, you know, if they get to see this sort of stuff, it may have repercussions on them and their families. So this is a real issue for the commissioner to try to grapple with because if you start off an inquiry and it’s undermined already by the main Opposition Party, and the Chinese Canadian and Uyghur Canadians and all these groups that have warned about China, where does this leave this commission? Hobbled. And if the public doesn’t believe in the outcomes, especially if they come out and say hey, there’s nothing to worry about here, like David Johnston’s report, then I think the commission could be in serious trouble even before it gets going.

Mercedes Stephenson: Big questions that they’re certainly going to have to resolve and I’m sure we’ll be talking about for several months. Thank you both for joining us with your insight and we’ll see you soon.

Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.

Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the prime minister brings back his Team Canada strategy to get ready for a second possible Trump presidency.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing …

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is looking to a tried and true strategy for his government, trying to insulate Canada from a possible Donald Trump re-election.

At his cabinet retreat, Trudeau announced the “Team Canada” approach is back, to ensure rosy relations with the U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Mr. Trump represents a certain amount of, of unpredictability. But, we will make sure we’re pulling together.”

Mercedes Stephenson: In a campaign style speech to his caucus, Trudeau attempted to link Trump with his political rival, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, warning Trump’s MAGA-style politics could spread in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Pierre Poilievre is focused on bringing his party further to the right.”

Mercedes Stephenson: But the threat of Trump returning to the White House might be just the contrast Justin Trudeau is hoping for to help his political fortunes.

Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next week.

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