(OTTAWA) Previous Liberal and Conservative campaign administrators told a House of Commons committee on Tuesday that concerns raised by national security officials would not necessarily be reason enough for them to remove a candidate from their lists.
They testified Tuesday at a meeting of the procedure and House affairs committee, which is examining the issue of foreign interference in Canadian affairs.
The pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government has steadily intensified amid a series of media reports which alleged, citing unnamed sources, that Beijing tried to influence the outcome of the last two federal elections.
One such report, published by Global News, alleged that Toronto MP Han Dong benefited from Chinese foreign interference in his successful bid to become his riding’s Liberal candidate in 2019. The report is cited in a lawsuit he filed against the company, which sticks to its publications.
Their testimonies come as pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government has intensified amid a series of media reports which alleged, citing unnamed sources, that Beijing tried to influence the outcome of the last two federal elections.
Mr. Ishmael, who oversaw the party’s last campaign in 2021, warned committee members before beginning his testimony that he would be limited in what he could say about the information provided to him during briefings on the national security.
Testimony from Jeremy Broadhurst, who is a senior adviser to Mr. Trudeau and led the Liberal Party’s 2019 campaign, came as a chill on Tuesday about the allegation reported by Global that National security officials had warned Mr. Trudeau against Mr. Dong and recommended that he no longer run for office.
Mr Broadhurst said that based on his experience working in government and with security officials, they would “never” have made such a recommendation.
“It is not the role of intelligence services to dictate to parties how they conduct their business,” he said. The determinations of the candidates are the responsibility of the parties. »
The committee heard about how the realities of partisan politics repeatedly collide with intelligence sharing on Tuesday, as two Conservative Party of Canada campaign managers testified to receiving vague information from a task force made up of security guards and federal officials set up to monitor attempts to interfere in the last two federal elections.
Fred DeLorey, who led the Conservatives’ 2021 campaign, said “it was like a one-way street” when it came to working with the group.
He said that although the party heard the “strange rumbling” during the race that something was wrong, concerns about attempts at foreign interference intensified once the results came in as the party suffered surprising losses in the ridings of Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver where large communities of Chinese Canadians reside.
DeLorey said a memo prepared for him after the election raised concerns that individuals were spreading false information about the party and its candidates online and in advertisements targeting the Chinese-Canadian community. The memo said the post appeared to favor the Liberals in some instances.
He said party officials on the task force told him that after presenting the information, officials noted “there were legislative gaps and there was nothing that could be done.” “.
DeLorey told MPs that former party leader Erin O’Toole believed nine constituencies had been targeted. But he said losing those seats to the Liberals would not have changed the outcome of the election.
Still, DeLorey added that lawmakers should introduce changes to ensure security officials better understand how party politics works.
“It’s an expert job,” he said. Until you’re inside, you don’t know what it looks like. »
Hamish Marshall, who led the 2019 campaign for the Conservatives, said he only received “vague” and “high-level” information from officials overseeing inference attempts during the campaign. vote. It was the first time that such a process existed.
He recommended that officials tasked with this task next time get used to working with supporters before the election period.
On whether political parties should drop candidates based on information provided by national security officials, Marshall said it’s important to understand that parties “hate” to drop registrants. to present themselves under their banners and selected by their members.
Reflecting on the news reports about Mr. Dong, Mr. Marshall testified: “I often thought, ‘What would I have done in this situation if CSIS had come to see us?’ »
He said withdrawing a candidate would require “very specific” and “tangible” allegations.
“The information that would be presented to us to act on… would have to be very, very detailed. »
Azam Ishmael, the National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada who oversaw its 2021 campaign, told MPs that if he received information about a candidate through a security briefing, party officials would face restrictions on who they could give them, for security reasons.
“We probably wouldn’t be free to discuss this with a candidate or their campaign team because they wouldn’t have the proper clearance,” he explained.
“We could only discuss it with people who had the proper clearance. »
Mr. Broadhurst added that political parties are not law enforcement agencies.
“There’s a point where you have to say, ‘It’s not appropriate for us to start investigating a crime,’ for example,” Broadhurst said, adding that the prime minister or party leader would be informed if there was evidence of wrongdoing.
“If we were the ones who discovered this information, we would obviously pass it on immediately to the authorities. »
Asked earlier which results the Conservatives believe could have been affected by Beijing’s interference, Ishmael suggested the changes were the result of the Conservative Party’s stance on gun control, an issue which erupted during the campaign.
The committee recently heard from Mr. Trudeau’s longtime chief of staff, Katie Telford, who repeatedly told MPs that national security provisions prevented her from releasing details of briefings on interference.
Mr. Trudeau has appointed former Governor General David Johnston to investigate the allegations of foreign interference.
Mr. Johnston is expected to return by the end of May with a recommendation on whether or not a full public inquiry into the matter is needed. Its final recommendations are expected at the end of October.