OTTAWA — The New Democrats say they are not willing to trigger a federal election over rising concerns about foreign interference in Canadian elections, and are instead continuing to push for a public inquiry on the issue.
Newly Independent MP Han Dong voted with opposition parties in favour of such an inquiry on Thursday, the day after he resigned from the Liberal caucus amid what he says are false allegations that he advised a Chinese diplomat on what the Trudeau government considered a high-priority file: the arbitrary and retaliatory detention of two Canadians in China.
The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois also voted with the New Democrats to pass the motion that urged the government to launch a national, independent, public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada's electoral system, although the motion is not binding.
The Liberal government has not ruled out a public inquiry, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that an unimpeachable, independent rapporteur should decide whether one is necessary — not politicians.
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said a public inquiry must be held immediately in order to clear the air about the allegations facing Dong and other media reports that allege foreign interference by China in the past two federal elections.
"My goal is to safeguard democracy, encourage people to participate, make sure people feel comfortable voting, and feel safe to vote and are not being influenced in their votes," Singh said.
"That goal is not met by triggering an election."
He said holding another election now would leave voters with the same concerns that are swirling in the current political debate.
China has flatly denied the allegations of interference. "We have no interest in, and will not interfere in, Canada's internal affairs," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Thursday. "There should be no irresponsible comments on this," reads the official English transcript of a press conference in Beijing.
Dong's vote in favour of a public inquiry came less than 24 hours after his resignation from the Liberal caucus. On Wednesday night, Global News published a report, citing unnamed security sources, alleging that Dong spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.
At the time, the two Canadian men who became known around the world as the "two Michaels" had been detained in China for just over two years in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Beijing has insisted the cases are not linked, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.
Global News alleged that Dong told China's consul general in Toronto that releasing the men would benefit the Conservatives, but also that showing some "progress" in the case would help the Liberals. The Canadian Press has not independently verified the allegations.
The MP said he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men. Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself "against these absolutely untrue claims" and did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.
Alison Murphy, a spokeswoman for Trudeau, said Dong did not inform the Prime Minister's Office of the February 2021 conversation until after receiving questions from the media.
His decision to step aside was the right one, said MPs from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.
The Bloc said Dong must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, a guarantee that every Canadian is granted.
"We need to respect that," said Bloc MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe.
Justice Minister David Lametti said Dong stepped aside to sit as an Independent "until he can clear his name."
China's Toronto consulate called the claims "utterly groundless" and asked media to "stop smearing and attacking China" with such claims.
The consulate says its staff "have never engaged" in breaching diplomatic protocol, and did not elaborate on the February 2021 discussion with Dong.
"It is the responsibility of consular posts to have extensive contacts and carry out friendly exchanges with local governments and all circles of society," the consulate wrote.
With opposition parties clamouring for a response to the allegations of Chinese interference, Lametti doubled down on the government's assertion that the recent Canadian elections were not broadly affected.
"We have entrusted high-ranking civil servants to monitor the fairness of elections, and we have no reason to believe the elections weren't fair," Lametti said Thursday.
He also noted former governor general David Johnston, as special rapporteur, has been asked to look into whether a judicial inquiry into the matter is needed.
"And I think we should let him do his work," he said.
Johnston has until May 23 to decide whether to recommend a public inquiry be held, though he was given an October deadline to complete his broader investigation into foreign interference.
The Conservatives and NDP both say they accept the results of the 2019 and 2021 election. A panel of bureaucrats determined that the past two elections remained free and fair, an assessment that national security agencies agree with.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.
— With files from David Fraser.
Mickey Djuric and Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press