Government defeats motion for hearings into PMO interference with former ambassadors

July 30, 2019 4:17 pm

The Liberals used their majority to vote down a motion today calling for parliamentary hearings into why Canada's foreign ministry called two former diplomats to caution them to avoid contradictory public messaging on China and why they were told this was at the request of the Prime Minister's Office.

Erin O'Toole, the Conservative vice-chair of the Commons committee on foreign affairs and international development, and Guy Caron, the NDP vice-chair, had made a formal request for the committee to be convened during the summer break.

They and other opposition MPs wanted the committee to examine whether the Trudeau government applied undue pressure on the former envoys.

The motion was voted down five to four on Tuesday, with the Liberals voting against and the opposition members voting in favour.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, and a career foreign-service officer, said Global Affairs Canada, citing a request from the PMO, asked him to check with the department before he makes future public statements on Ottawa's China policy, citing the "election environment." Mulroney served as ambassador to Beijing between 2009 and 2012.

"In this time, he said, of high tension and in an election environment, we all need to be very, very careful," Mulroney said. "He said ... 'I've been asked by PMO: Before you comment on aspects of China policy, it would be good if you called in and got the latest from us on what we're doing.'"

The person who made the call was Paul Thoppil, the Department of Global Affairs' assistant deputy minister for Asia Pacific.

Guy Saint-Jacques, another former ambassador to Beijing, said he, too, received a call from Thoppil. Saint-Jacques, who was Canada's ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said he found the directive to be particularly odd given that it concerned an authoritarian state. "Especially having served in China and knowing how they try to control messaging there," he said.

Saint-Jacques characterized the way the message was delivered as "a bit clumsy," adding Thoppil "wanted me to know that PMO just wanted him to relay the hope that we could all speak with one voice to support the strategy of the government."

Mr. Saint-Jacques said the tone of his conversation with Mr. Thoppil appears to have been different from what Mr. Mulroney experienced. He said he can see how Mr. Mulroney might have felt the government was asking him to clear public comments first. "In my case, I did not feel that. But I can understand that one could come to that conclusion when they say we should speak with one voice."

But the Prime Minister's Office said it would never try to prevent a former diplomat from speaking freely.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said the same thing. "As for the two former ambassadors, Minister Freeland has immense respect for both and has never and would never seek to interfere with their free and independent contribution to the public debate," spokesman Adam Austen said.

The government couldn't explain on the record why a Global Affairs official would ask Mulroney to run statements by the department before commenting publicly, why Thoppil repeatedly told Mulroney he was passing on a request from the PMO or why the senior bureaucrat would cite the “election environment" when the civil service is supposed to be non-partisan.