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Johnston set to testify about foreign interference in June

MPs have again invited special rapporteur David Johnston to testify before a parliamentary committee investigating foreign interference, by June 6.

Opposition MPs have teamed up to force a meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) on Thursday, despite it being a break week for the House of Commons, where MPs debated a Tory-sponsored proposal to drag Johnston before the panel of MPs to explain his recommendation against a public inquiry into foreign election interference.

“It is essential that we hear from him,” Tory MP Michael Barrett said, trying to make his point by delivering a formal summons requiring Johnston to appear within the next seven days. “We want to take a closer look at the findings he has, take a look under the hood.”

However, the Liberals were quick to accuse opposition parties of further politicizing the issue of foreign interference, as the committee had already decided two months ago when Johnston was appointed to the role he should appear. Johnston had accepted the invitation with the intention of speaking to MPs after the release of his interim report, according to committee chairman and Liberal MP Bardish Chagger.

“I think it’s irresponsible to drag this out, to give the impression that Mr. Johnston doesn’t want to appear, when he’s already made it clear that he wants to appear before the committee… And I don’t think that we have to play political games, partisan games, saying that he resists all appearances, ”said Liberal MP Greg Fergus.

After nearly four hours of back and forth over a series of amendments aimed at upholding the committee’s past call for a public inquiry and deliberations on what Chagger described as an ever-changing ranking of upcoming witnesses, the committee agreed to ask Johnston to testify for three hours, unaccompanied, no later than June 6.

In the end, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois voted against the final version of the motion, even if the non-binding wording asking the government to begin consultations with a view to launching a public inquiry within two weeks was maintained.

The motion has also been updated to include a call for opposition party leaders to accept Johnston’s recommendation to receive security clearances to review the full confidential appendix to his report.

That call came with language injected by the NDP: “provided that these leaders are able to speak as freely about conclusions based on this information as Mr. Johnston, the Prime Minister, and other members of the Privy Council.”

“Conservatives voted against the main motion which saw the Liberal-NDP cover-up coalition work together to silence the opposition on Beijing’s interference,” Conservative spokesman Sebastian Skamski said in an email to CTV News. .

On Tuesday, Johnston released his first report as special rapporteur to investigate foreign interference, in which he pointed to serious shortcomings within Canada’s intelligence apparatus, but said he had no found no evidence to suggest that the federal government had not acted knowingly or negligently.

He ruled that a public inquiry was not necessary, a decision he said he made based on the fact that key pieces of sensitive classified information that would inform Canadians about issues such as who knew what and when “cannot be publicly disclosed” and would essentially replicate work he has undertaken over the past two months.

Johnston’s recommendation against an inquiry was quickly dismissed by all federal opposition parties who continue to insist that the issue deserves proper – and as public as possible – airing of all the facts, in order to reassure Canadians.

The letter requesting the meeting – signed by all Tory, Bloc and New Democrat MPs who sit on the PROC – called Johnston’s rejection of an inquiry “a slap in the face to abused and abused diaspora groups.” intimidation by hostile foreign governments and all Canadians rightly concerned about foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections and future elections.”

“Our job is to focus on Canadians and what they need to see to feel clarity and confidence in their systems. And right now, we’re seeing that eroding through this bit-by-bit process, where things keep coming out in the media. It’s quite worrisome,” said NDP MP Rachel Blaney. “It’s disappointing that we’re here, and I think it really describes the reality that Canadians need to see a transparent and clear process, in which they can trust. This process certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

Reporting by the Globe and Mail and Global News over the past six months on allegations of Beijing’s attempts to intervene in Canadian democracy – some of which, according to Johnston, have been “misinterpreted” – has led the PROC to hold more than a dozen meetings on the problem. Since November, the committee has heard from senior federal officials, party representatives, intelligence experts, and current and former MPs.

In his report, Johnston said part of his work was reviewing “all relevant facts” over the past two months and that included participating in PROC hearings. From there, he made the following observation: “While these debates certainly included an element of political theatre, the deputies asked insightful questions and received important information from various witnesses.”

The resistance of the leaders of the two largest opposition parties to seeing for themselves the documents that informed Johnston’s conclusions is the latest example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday, of his critics being more interested in do politics than to be proactive.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote to Trudeau on Thursday confirming his intention to receive the security clearance needed to access Johnston’s confidential annex, with conditions. In the letter, Singh also said he “deeply” disagreed with Trudeau’s decision to take Johnston’s advice not to open an investigation.

Singh’s conditions for obtaining a security clearance are that members of his team can accompany him to fill vacancies left by Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, and that they receive a briefing by officials explaining the impact of confidentiality on his ability to speak publicly on the issue of foreign interference in the future.

“In his report, Mr. Johnston wrote that he insisted on an ‘unprecedented’ ability to discuss intelligence matters. I expect to be able to speak as freely about my findings based on the intelligence that I am authorized to consult and that my ability to criticize government actions will not be limited. I will seek assurances on this in writing,” Singh said in his letter to the prime minister.

Trudeau — who appointed Johnston to the post under pressure to address growing concerns about the threat of foreign interference in Canadian affairs — backs the former governor general’s decision to hold hearings.

During Thursday’s meeting, Liberal MPs repeatedly stressed how they felt the opposition’s reaction to Johnston’s report was “appalling” and “regrettable”.

“You have individuals here who say they want to find out the truth, and yet their party leaders won’t even be briefed from a national security perspective on the intelligence that underlies all the conclusions that Mr. Johnston is at. So, you know, for me, it’s hard to take the debate here in good faith, and quite frankly, that makes me angry,” said Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull.

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