24th May 2023 – (Ottawa) David Johnston, the special rapporteur appointed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has released his first report on foreign interference in Canada’s federal elections. Johnston investigated recent media reports alleging Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, analysing the validity of the reporting and assessing whether the Liberal government ignored national security threats or advice. He ruled out a public inquiry, finding that much of it would have to be held in private due to top-secret information, but will hold his own public hearings instead. Here are five key takeaways from his report:
Johnston found no evidence that cabinet ministers or Trudeau knowingly ignored intelligence but concluded there needs to be a better flow of information between them. Johnston said staff at the Prime Minister’s Office are given a large binder in a secure room to review material, with no ability to take notes for security reasons. The prime minister is only briefed on matters that are supported by reliable information.
Johnston accused some media organisations of misconstruing intelligence after reviewing classified documents and intelligence. He disputed several Global News and Globe and Mail reports but said the broader context cannot be shared publicly. Johnston put together a detailed classified annex of what actually happened in relation to each media report, which will be provided to the prime minister, cabinet members, officials, or opposition leaders who are willing to get security clearance.
Media reports have claimed that federal candidates received funds during the 2019 federal election, with limited intelligence supporting the notion that the Chinese government intended for funds to reach seven Liberal and four Conservative candidates. However, Johnston’s report said there is no intelligence suggesting any of them received that money. The report also found no basis to conclude that candidates were working in concert or understood the intentions of apparent Chinese government proxies who were communicating with them.
After the 2021 federal election, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole claimed that China had interfered in the process, costing his party eight or nine seats. Johnston’s report found little evidence to support this assertion. While there is a possibility that some Chinese Canadians disagreed with the Conservative Party’s platform, that’s “not interference, it is the democratic process.” The report also threw cold water on the idea that China backed a Liberal minority government result in the 2021 election.
In March, Global News published a story alleging that Liberal MP Han Dong told a Chinese diplomat that releasing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would benefit the Conservatives. Johnston’s report found that the allegation is false, saying that Dong did not suggest to the official that China extend their detention. Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus following the report and filed a lawsuit against Global News for those and other allegations related to Chinese interference.