By happily admitting last week that he has been advising senior Chinese foreign ministry officials about how to influence the outcome of the October federal election, John McCallum, Canada’s disgraced former ambassador to China, has once again invited a whole lot of spirited public speculation about what the hell gives with this guy.
The most charitable view is that he’s just clueless, which is an easier hypothesis to defend than you might think. McCallum’s fumbles during his two years as Canada’s ambassador in Beijing reached such an embarrassing crescendo in January that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to fire him. It was in the early innings of the total collapse in diplomatic relations between Canada and China, and McCallum’s contribution was to give every impression that he’d broken with Ottawa and gone over to the other side.
The view of Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives is that there is something far more disquieting about McCallum’s candid admissions to the South China Morning Post last Monday. McCalllum said he’s been telling top Chinese officials that if Beijing played its cards right, it might be able to head off a Conservative election victory in October.
The Conservatives have issued a formal request to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to look into it. “I forcefully and unequivocally condemn recent comments by high-profile Liberals encouraging the Chinese government to help re-elect the government this October,” Scheer says. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she’s similarly appalled. “I think that it is highly inappropriate for any Canadian to be offering advice or opinions to any foreign government on how that government ought or ought not to behave to secure any particular election outcome in Canada.”
McCallum said he’d advised top Chinese officials that any further “punishments” Beijing inflicts upon Canada would heighten the likelihood of Canadian voters turning to the Conservatives, who are “much less friendly to China than the Liberals.” He’s right about that. A case can be made that McCallum would have to be clueless to have said that out loud, but it’s not idiotic advice. And John McCallum is not just “any Canadian,” or just any random clueless person. And if CSIS were to properly scrutinize what’s up with McCallum, it’s a thick file.
READ MORE: Whose side is Jean Chrétien on?
Ottawa’s recent initiatives against foreign interference in elections have been focused on Russian-style disinformation and cyber-meddling of the type that preceded the 2016 election of Donald Trump. But Canada’s predicament is more like Australia’s, and Australia’s recent Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme would be a better model.
Launched last December in response to Beijing’s accelerated subversion of Australian politics and a series of scandals involving several Beijing-compliant politicians, the Australian law requires individuals or companies politicking on behalf of a foreign power to register and set out their activities on a public website.
It’s been eight years since Richard Fadden, who was then the CSIS director, warned that numerous Canadian politicians had come under Beijing’s spell. For his trouble, Fadden was admonished by the House of Commons Security Committee, which recommended that he be fired.
He should have been thanked for what has lately become obvious as prescience, but in any case, there is no evidence that McCallum, who has been a Liberal Party fixture since the days of Jean Chretien, has done anything illegal.
During his time in the House of Commons, long before his appointment as ambassador, McCallum took $73,000 in free trips to China, courtesy of the Chinese state and Chinese business interests—all perfectly legal. Following in Chretien’s well-worn footprints, McCallum is now working as a strategic adviser on China trade with the firm McMillan LLP. Again, perfectly legal.
As soon as he resigned in 2004 in the wake of the AdScam corruption scandal, Chretien carved out a lucrative practice greasing China’s investment wheels in Canada and Canadian corporate interests in China. And like McCallum, the former prime minister has been busy lately with indiscretions of his own on Beijing’s behalf.
Freeland has been forced to publicly rebuke Chretien for badgering the government to placate Beijing by simply instructing Justice Minister David Lametti to drop the extradition proceedings against Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou—the impudence that prompted Beijing to punish Canada in the first place. It was Meng’s defence case that McCallum was fired for pleading in January. McCallum also said it would be “great” if Trump intervened with the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecution of Meng by somehow forcing the department’s lawyers to drop the whole thing.
Ever since Meng was picked up in Vancouver on the Justice Department’s extradition warrant—she faces 13 counts of fraud and conspiracy charges related to Huawei’s alleged sanctions evasions in Iran—the “punishments” Beijing has inflicted on Canada have been ominous and cruel. Among them: the Ministry of State Security’s detention of diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor and a trade embargo on Canadian canola, soybeans, peas and meat products. With threats of further retaliation to come.
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