WORLD NEWS Conservatives say credibility of foreign interference probe undermined by...

Conservatives say credibility of foreign interference probe undermined by denying them full standing in first phase

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Justice Marie-Josée Hogue seen on Aug. 22, 2023,Université de Sherbrooke

The Official Opposition is criticizing the judge running the public inquiry into foreign interference for not granting the Conservative Party full standing in the first phase of this probe, a decision that means they cannot ask questions of witnesses or gain access to any evidence gathered outside of the hearings.

The first part of the foreign interference inquiry will examine foreign interference by states such as China in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The second phase will examine what reforms are necessary to fight foreign interference.

The Conservatives say it was their party that was targeted by the Chinese government, including foreign affairs critic Michael Chong. In May, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole revealed that Canada’s spy agency has told him he was also the target of a misinformation and voter-suppression operation by the Chinese Communist Party – demonstrating what he called an “orchestrated campaign of foreign interference” leading up to and during the 2021 federal election.

Sebastian Skamski, director of media relations for the Opposition Leader’s Office, said this decision by Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue, a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeals, undercuts the credibility of the inquiry that will get under way in January.

The Conservatives say it’s unfair that the governing Liberals effectively have gained full standing in the first phase of the inquiry because the government has been granted this right while they have only been given intervenor status in the hearings. Intervenors cannot ask questions of witnesses but can make submissions to the inquiry. They can also only gain access to evidence that is presented publicly to the probe.

“Political parties are not bit players in this story; they are central to the issues at hand,” Mr. Skamski said. “Conservative candidates and MPs have been specifically targeted by Beijing’s efforts to influence our elections and reports from the media have suggested that it was the explicit strategy of the CCP to target the Conservative Party and benefit Liberals.”

In May, Mr. Chong learned from The Globe and Mail that Beijing had targeted him and his relatives in Hong Kong in the leadup to the 2021 election, a revelation that led the federal government to expel Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei.

“The decision by Justice Hogue to deny full standing to the Conservative Party in the public inquiry is deeply concerning and undermines the credibility of the entire process,” Mr. Skamski said. “Political parties are directly affected by foreign interference in our democracy.”

He said it’s wrong for the Official Opposition to be denied full standing while the government is granted it. “While the Conservative Party has been denied full standing, the Liberals – via the Government of Canada – do have full standing. The double standard is glaring.”

The Conservatives and NDP are granted full standing in the second part, or “policy phase,” of the inquiry, when the probe looks for reforms to counter foreign interference.

The Conservatives are taking credit for pushing the government to launch the inquiry, with Mr. Skamski pointing to the party’s “sustained efforts to call out inaction on the part of the Liberal government.”

Justice Hogue in a 71-page decision Monday announced which individuals and groups would be granted full standing and which would be granted intervenor status.

She also warned the Conservatives against politicking during the inquiry and cautioned she could revoke their intervenor status if they ignored this.

“I am therefore advising the Conservative Party of Canada, and indeed all participants, that I will not allow this commission to become a partisan debate between opposing political factions,” she wrote. “If the Conservative Party proves unable to live up to this expectation, I recall that I retain the authority to revoke a grant of standing and will not hesitate to do so in appropriate circumstances.”

Mr. Skamski said the judge’s remarks are troubling.

“Justice Hogue’s comments pre-emptively singling out Conservatives for a warning about partisanship suggests bias,” he said.

“Conservatives will not relent in our efforts to protect Canadians, protect our democracy, and get the truth for Canadians.”

Justice Hogue granted party standing to nine individuals and groups. This entitles them to full participation in the hearings including the right to question witnesses and access to certain non-public documents.

Eight individuals and groups were granted intervener status in the first phase of the inquiry and 18, including the Conservative and New Democratic Party, were granted standing in the final hearings involving policy proposals to counter foreign interference. Interveners have a right to be present at all hearings and to submit oral or written submissions and to access documents tabled into evidence.

Inquiry hearings will take place early in the New Year that will focus on foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The inquiry’s first report is due by Feb. 29, 2024.

In the second phase, the inquiry will examine the capacity of federal departments and agencies to detect and counter foreign interference by hostile states such as China and Russia.

The final report is due by Dec. 31, 2024, and will make recommendations on how to better protect Canada’s democratic processes from foreign interference. The next federal election is scheduled for the fall of 2025, but a campaign could take place before then if the New Democratic Party were to withdraw its support from a pact with the Liberal government.

Independent MP Han Dong and former Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan, now Deputy Mayor of Markham, have been granted party standing along with the government, Commissioner of Canada Elections, a coalition of human rights groups, Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance, Centre for Free Expression and the Media Coalition.

Mr. Dong stepped out of the Liberal caucus in March, saying he wanted to clear his name after Global News reported, citing unnamed national security sources, that he allegedly told a Chinese diplomat in February, 2021, that releasing imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China would benefit the Conservatives.

Former governor general David Johnston, named by the government as special rapporteur on foreign interference, issued a report in May in which he deemed those allegations false. Mr. Dong has strongly denied the allegations and is suing Global News.

“As someone who is the subject of some of the core allegations of foreign interference that this commission is tasked with investigating, I agree that Mr. Dong has an obvious reputational interest in the commission’s work,” Justice Hogue wrote in her decision to grant him party standing. “He is uniquely situated to provide first-hand information about relevant events and, given the reported allegations against him, his participation would contribute to the transparency of the inquiry.”

The Globe has reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has a dossier on Mr. Chan that contains information on his activities in the 2019 and 2021 federal election campaigns and meetings with suspected Chinese intelligence operatives. He is suing CSIS, the government and reporters from The Globe and Mail and Global TV over leaks of information about him.

“As someone whose actions are likely to be part of the factual matrix within which the commissioner investigates the issues in its mandate, Mr. Chan has a direct and substantial interest in the commission’s work, including a reputational interest,” Justice Hogue said.

Aside from the Conservative Party, other individuals and groups granted intervener status in the first phase of the inquiry are the New Democratic Party, Democracy Watch, Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy, Chinese Canadians Concern Group on the Chinese Communist Party’s Human Rights Violations, Senator Yuen Paul Woo and the Pillar Society, which includes former CSIS and RCMP security service officers.

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