OTTAWA — Liberal House leader Mark Holland isn't ruling out turning a Conservative motion on foreign interference into a confidence vote that could topple the government and would test the strength of the supply-and-confidence deal between the Liberals and the NDP.
The Conservatives tabled the motion in the House of Commons Monday demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, appear at the House ethics committee before the middle of April. They want her, along with more than a dozen other witnesses, to answer questions about allegations that the Chinese government interfered in Canada's last two federal elections.
The move follows weeks of filibustering by the Liberals to prevent Telford from being summoned to appear at the House procedure committee on the same topic.
Alberta MP Michael Cooper said Telford is "a critical witness to get to the heart of the scandal." He said she should be able to answer what Trudeau knows about Beijing's attempts at meddling, when he learned about it and what he did about it.
The Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois both seem prepared to vote in favour of the motion. The NDP has yet to say where it stands on this specific motion, but intends to push its own motion demanding a full public inquiry be called on the issue of foreign interference.
NDP House leader Peter Julien reiterated Monday that his party wants an inquiry to look at the issue as a whole, rather than focus only on China. But the Conservatives have rejected calls to expand the probe to include meddling by other governments, such as Russia and Iran.
The Tories challenged the NDP to side with them instead of the "corrupt government."
"While this motion is a test for this government, it is also a test for the NDP," said Cooper.
It certainly could be the first real test of the supply-and-confidence arrangement the NDP and Liberals agreed to a year ago. Under that deal, the NDP is supporting the government on budgets and other votes that are automatically viewed as confidence matters, in exchange for the government moving on key NDP priorities such as dental care.
A confidence vote is one that the government must win — or be forced to resign.
The agreement, reached in early March 2022, does address situations in which the government declares a confidence vote on other matters. It requires the Liberals to inform the NDP of a confidence vote as soon as possible, and the NDP to discuss with the Liberals how its MPs intend to vote before announcing so publicly, "to permit discussions" to take place.
Holland hinted those talks are underway now, when asked specifically if the government would move to declare the Conservative motion a confidence matter.
"I think it's not helpful to jump to the end of a process when we are still having conversations in a contemporaneous circumstance," Holland said in a scrum with reporters outside the House Monday afternoon.
The Liberals are on the same page with the NDP about wanting to look at foreign interference from all other countries, not just China. However, thus far, Trudeau has rejected calls for a public inquiry, choosing instead to appoint a "special rapporteur" to oversee an investigation on the issue.
Trudeau named former governor general David Johnston for the role. The prime minister has committed to abiding by his advice, including any recommendation to hold a full public inquiry.
Holland accused the Conservatives of playing partisan games with the very serious issue of foreign interference in Canada's democratic processes. He said the government has offered to bring its national campaign chairs from 2019 and 2021 to the committees to answer questions.
He said the Conservatives won't offer the same, though the Conservative motion Monday includes not just Telford but more than a dozen others, including all the campaign chairs for every official party in the House of Commons for both the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The campaign chairs and co-chairs were briefed during the elections about any signs of foreign interference.
Holland said the decision to focus so intently on Telford is entirely about partisan politics.
Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer said the Tories would support the motion even if the Liberals made it into a confidence motion noting the issue is important enough.
“It's up to Justin Trudeau to make those kinds of decisions. And it's up to the NDP to decide whether or not they're going to allow themselves to be bullied around to cover up Liberal scandals,” Scheer told reporters on Parliament Hill.
Scheer rejected Holland’s contention that seeking Telford's testimony amounts to partisan games. He argued she is one of the few people in Trudeau’s orbit during both elections and regular government work.
“She also would have had incredibly sensitive information as to the Liberal campaign itself, and that's why it's so important.”
-- With files from Dylan Robertson
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press