Conservatives walking fine line in attacking Liberals on foreign interference – National |

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One of Pierre Poilievre’s interventions during Wednesday’s question period neatly summed up the balance Conservatives are trying to strike in attacking the Liberal government on foreign interference.

“This is actually not about one member of Parliament,” Poilievre said, referencing allegations that China’s security services targeted MP Michael Chong’s family. “This is about millions of patriotic Canadians of Chinese descent who face this kind of abuse and harassment every single day,”

The balance involves, naturally, attacking the real and perceived Liberal failings to prevent or deter foreign meddling in Canadian politics. But it also involves separating the alleged actions of the Chinese government from Canadian voters of Chinese descent.

“We hear stories of Chinese Canadians in tears because they are being intimidated by agents just like the one who attacked (Chong’s) family. These are our people. This is our home.”

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Stressing the distinction could be motivated by the party’s experience in the 2021 election, when Conservatives believed Erin O’Toole’s hawkish stance on relations with China alienated Canadian voters of Chinese descent.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau insists info on China’s alleged threat to Michael Chong never made it to him, office'

Trudeau insists info on China’s alleged threat to Michael Chong never made it to him, office

But that’s not the only balance the Conservatives have to strike. They attack Liberals for failing to address allegations that the Chinese government attempt to meddle in the two most recent elections, which the Conservatives happened to have lost. But when it comes to allegations about possible Conservative complicity in an alleged Beijing-connected network active during the 2019 election, they can’t cast too many stones. According to intelligence sources, Liberals and Conservatives were both involved.

That may help explain why the two parties sometimes echo each other.

“We’ve seen the report that CSIS told the prime minister to remove the candidate in Don Valley North,” Hamish Marshall, the Conservative’s national campaign director in 2019, told a House of Commons committee in April.

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Marshall was referring to a Global News report that those close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew of intelligence suggesting Han Dong, the now-independent member for Don Valley West, was a “witting” participant in a foreign influence campaign. Dong disputes that allegations and has launched legal action against Global News.

“Since I’ve read that report, I’ve often thought what I would have done in that situation if CSIS had come to us … Our parties are not set up in a way that we can sort of just take it as read that something came from the security services and, therefore, we should change candidates,” Marshall said, almost echoing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s argument in the Dong case.

“Understanding that, it’s going to be very, very important for the intelligence services to work co-operatively … not just suddenly two or three months before and election, and their turning up and saying ‘here’s a variety of information’.”

While the Conservatives are focused on Liberal failings on foreign interference, Conservative MPs also have to factor in intimidation campaigns as they try to lay blame. Michael Cooper, one of the Conservatives lead MPs on the foreign interference file, told a Commons’ committee in April that the party’s candidate in Markham-Unionville “received a cryptic and threatening text message from Beijing’s consul general in Toronto, suggesting that he would no longer be a member of parliament after the 2021 election.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says CSIS should share information about future threats against MPs with feds'

Trudeau says CSIS should share information about future threats against MPs with feds

Even taking care to focus their attacks on the Liberals and the communist government in Beijing, however, may not shield the Conservatives completely. O’Toole’s former director of communications Melanie Paradis said their 2021 campaign tried to “strike the right balance” on calling out “the communist Chinese regime” as distinct from China’s people.

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“But even those best efforts proved a bit futile when we were up against misinformation campaigns on WeChat, which was a platform that we were largely inactive on,” Paradis said, referencing a popular Chinese-language social media service.

Paradis said the Conservative campaign was stretched thin just getting their own materials translated into other languages – let alone the capacity to have people monitoring foreign language websites to identify and mitigate misinformation or attacks.

“It’s what makes it an incredibly dangerous and effective tool, because parties, and I say parties because I don’t believe that the Liberals or the NDP are frankly doing any better at this, just don’t have the wherewithal to keep up with it,” Paradis added.

An advisor to Poilievre, who agreed to discuss internal party issues on the condition they not be named, downplayed concerns that going hard on the foreign interference file could alienate potential voters. While those close to Poilievre accept that some Conservative candidates experienced interference in 2021, the advisor said there were many more factors contributing to the party’s third-straight loss to Trudeau’s Liberals.

“Do I believe there was foreign interference? Yes … But I don’t think it was the only factor in terms of us losing seats within ridings that had a high (Chinese Canadian) population,” the advisor said in a recent interview.

Whatever is left to leak out through the media will largely determine what direction the Conservatives take on the foreign interference file.

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But much will also depend on David Johnson, the former Governor General tasked with determining whether or not a public inquiry into foreign interference is warranted. If he agrees that a public inquiry is needed, the Conservatives will pay close attention to the parameters of that inquiry – would it involve just alleged interference from the Chinese government, or would it focus on the broader picture? Would a public inquiry be limited to elections the Conservatives lost – 2019 and 2021, most recently – or include foreign interference during Stephen Harper’s tenure?

Click to play video: 'RCMP ‘taking action’ against alleged Chinese police stations operating in Canada: Trudeau'

RCMP ‘taking action’ against alleged Chinese police stations operating in Canada: Trudeau

Global News reported in March that the Conservatives moved to limit any public inquiry to the 2019 and 2021 elections – and focus it specifically on interference from the Chinese government. What might a broader inquiry uncover?

Asked if the allegations of foreign interference could put a chill on Conservative policy concerning China, Paradis said it was an “active consideration” for O’Toole’s team.

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“There will be people within the party who don’t want to talk about this because they don’t want to put a target on our backs and make it even more difficult to win the next election,” Paradis said.

“They just want to win and then deal with it, and I understand that mentality. But this is something much bigger than partisan politics. This is our very democracy we’re talking about.”

— with a file from The Canadian Press

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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