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Before colleagues voted to quash a review of whether the Liberal government acted improperly after a bureaucrat asked former diplomats to temper public comments about China, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee that he’s “distressed”.
Apparently, he was not distressed about a Foreign Affairs assistant deputy minister asking two former ambassadors to China to “check in” before making future pronouncements on Canada’s shambolic relations with the communist regime.
Oliphant’s also not distressed about the troubling optics that either diplomat – David Mulroney and Guy Saint-Jacques – felt The Globe and Mail should be aware of their reservations about said interactions, which the paper reported last week.
“I am very distressed, at the tone, at the idea and at the allegations that are being cast about by members of the opposition,” Oliphant, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and non-voting member, claimed at the committee’s emergency meeting Tuesday.
Oliphant’s claim comes after either diplomat says the department’s ADM Paul Thoppil told them his call was at the behest of the PMO. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have denied they directed such outreach.
Mulroney, who had earlier warned about travel to China following the detention two Canadians there in December of last year, told the Globe that Thoppil cited the ‘election environment’ and asked him to contact the department before making future statements.
“It wasn’t, in my view, so much an offer to consult and share ideas as to ‘get with the program’. People in Ottawa don’t invoke PMO frequently or lightly. It is done to intimidate and obtain compliance,” Mulroney is quoted as saying.
Saint-Jacques told the Globe that his conversation with Thoppil differed somewhat, “But I can understand that one could come to that conclusion when they say we should speak with one voice.”
The pair of stories published last week spurred a letter by three Conservative committee members and lone New Democrat Guy Caron, requesting the emergency confab to deliberate calling Freeland, Thoppil, as well as Mulroney and Saint-Jacques to testify to the particulars.
“From free speech, to not muzzling people, to ensuring that we have a non-partisan public service and there is no way a Prime Minister’s Office is…asking public servants to behave in a partisan way,” Conservative MP Leona Alleslev said of the need for further investigation.
“Those are serious allegations we need to get to the bottom of.”
But an hour’s worth of arguments by her, Conservative MPs Micheal Barrett, Pierre Paul-Hus and NDP’s Caron, were all but perfunctory on the Liberal dominated committee that defeated their motion for an inquiry, 5-4.
“Either (the former diplomats) are not telling us the truth or they are exaggerating the situation, or that the ADM who called them on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office lied when making that call,” said Caron. “One way or another the situation is serious.”
Monday afternoon in Vancouver where Trudeau re-opened Kistilano’s shuttered Coast Guard facility, he denied related events as portrayed by the Globe.
“The PMO did not direct that to happen,” he told reporters. Freeland has also denied that she directed department officials to contact the pair.
In a statement to The Post Millennial from Global Affairs Canada, spokesperson Stefano Maron caged outreach to Mulroney and Saint-Jacques, much like Oliphant did at committee Tuesday:
“Such engagement (is) to ensure informed public discussion of important foreign policy issues so that comments of others such as former diplomats are well informed by current circumstances,” writes Maron.
“The call with Mr. Mulroney was made with this intention. We welcome the views and advice of informed Canadians such as Mr. Mulroney on these complex issues and regret that this message was not clearly communicated.”
“There was no instruction from anyone, including the PMO, that Mr. Mulroney clear his public comments with the Government,” Maron concludes.
Given the circumstances of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who are currently detained in China, Oliphant decried the politicking and insisted the focus be on them.
“There should be nothing more on our minds right now than ensuring their safety and considering their well-being. So we have lives in the balance, and we also have livelihoods in the balance,” said Oliphant, who also referenced crushing embargoes China has levelled against Canadian agriculture producers.
Relations between China and Canada have reached a nadir after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou while she transited through Vancouver last December.
She remains under house arrest, awaiting extradition to the United States to face fraud and conspiracy charges related to Huawei business which violated U.S. sanctions against Iran.
In apparent retaliation, China arrested Spavor and Kovrig and charged them with espionage before ratcheted up economic pressure by embargoing Canadian canola and other seed product that has expanded to include all meat exports.
During a brief scrum following the emergency meeting, Oliphant reiterated concern about Spavor and Kovrig but declined to answer whether Canadians should avoid travelling to China, as Mulroney had advised.
“I would advise Canadians to check the travel advisories that are updated regularly by Global Affairs officials…we have officials on the ground, we call them diplomats,” he said, adding that was what communications between Thoppil and the former diplomats were really all about.
“We want to make sure anyone in the public sphere, anyone who is expressing opinions, has the most up-to-date information.”
Oliphant also did not say whether his government told ex-ambassador to China John McCallum “to check in” before unleashing a series of public statements on relations, one of which got him fired by Trudeau at the end of January.
“The Prime minister made it clear the former ambassador was not speaking on behalf of the government on several occasions and he’s no longer the ambassador.”
Canada is without an ambassador to China since McCallum was turfed for calling select Chinese media in Toronto to a press conference, where he offered tips to the communist regime on fighting Meng’s extradition.