OTTAWA – A parliamentary committee putting the fraught Canada-China relationship under the spotlight is another casualty of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to prorogue Parliament.
And it is not certain whether the committee — established over the objections of the Liberal government last December — will return.
But Conservative MP Garnet Genuis said his party will push for the committee’s return. He believes the Liberals voted against it because it would show they were pursuing the wrong policy with the emerging superpower.
“The Liberals have always opposed parliamentary scrutiny of what they’re doing on China, because I think they realize that their approach to China is just widely out of step with where Canadians would like us to go.”
Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos said like the rest of his party he initially opposed the committee because he feared it would be more “political theatre” than substance.
“I was initially skeptical, because I wasn’t sure that it would be an effective tool to generate ideas about the Canada-China relationship and how to improve it,” he said.
He stressed he speaks only for himself, but he said he now favours having the committee return when Parliament reconvenes Sept. 23.
“It has done very good work. We have heard from stellar witnesses who have presented us with ideas, not only about the current Chinese leadership and its approach domestically and in terms of Chinese foreign policy, but specifically, what these experts have shared with us, are views about the nature of the Canada-China relationship.”
NDP MP Jack Harris said he believes it is essential the committee returns.
“I am prepared to insist that we revive it. The committee was doing extremely important work for the long haul, but particularly on the situation in Hong Kong,” he said. “This relationship is extremely important and the stakes are very high.”
He said the committee was preparing to make specific recommendations on how Canada handles the evolving situation in Hong Kong. He said the government ignored potential input on that issue just to stop the other committees investigating the WE charity scandal.
“I don’t think they took that into consideration at all.”
The Conservatives established the committee with the support of the NDP and Bloc Québécois and despite Liberal opposition.
Prorogation halts all committee work and establishes effectively a new Parliament after the throne speech in late September. While standing committees like Finance, and Ethics — both investigating the WE Charity scandal — will automatically return, the China committee will need support in the House of Commons to get back up and running.
Even if that support exists, it will take several weeks for the committees to reform and begin hearing evidence again.
Mark Kennedy, a spokesperson for Liberal house leader Pablo Rodriguez, said the House of Commons will decide the committee’s future.
“In the upcoming fall session, it will be up to members of the House of Commons to determine what happens with regards to special committees,” he said.
If there is unanimous consent in the House after the throne speech the committee could come back quickly, but if the Liberals oppose it, it would have to wait until an opposition party brings forward the idea.
The committee began meeting in January and heard testimony from Canada’s current ambassador to China Dominic Barton. They also heard from several former ambassadors, bureaucrats and think tanks.
The committee’s work was sidelined for several months during the pandemic, but it reconvened in August and heard from the president of Tibet’s government in exile and several activist groups on new national security legislation in Hong Kong.
Canada’s relationship with China has been strained in the last few years. The arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou led to the retaliatory arrests of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who have now spent more than 18 months in custody.
Fragiskatos said the committee has much more to look into.
“The Canada-China committee should reform and continue its work, in terms of gathering advice that can be provided directly to the government,” he said. “We need those ideas, because in the balance is the fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”
When they initially opposed the committee last year, Liberal MPs argued the foreign affairs committee could cover that need without a special set up.
Genuis said China simply needs more focus than that.
“There are so many different interrelated global crises that have the roots in the policy and philosophy of the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. This clearly requires special engagement.”