August 3, 2019 11:00 am

COMMENTARY: Once again, it seems like the Liberals are trying to control the message

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday March 7, 2019.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
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It was a story this week that felt awfully familiar: the Liberals using their majority on a Commons committee to block an investigation into a potentially embarrassing or even scandalous matter.

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When it was first reported that opposition members on the foreign affairs committee were bringing forward a motion calling on the committee to look into whether the government attempted to muzzle two former diplomats with regard to the China situation, I think we all knew how things were going to proceed.

As we’ve seen with previous Liberal scandals, their modus operandi has been to try and make the story go away. The same playbook is being used here. With an election looming, it’s even more incentive for the Liberals to avoid giving life to any story that might have even the whiff of scandal.

READ MORE: Liberals reject bid to study reports of pressure on former diplomats over China

But the matter involving these two former diplomats is serious. That a government would try and control the public comments made by former diplomats is something that is quite unprecedented and quite troubling. The Liberals might not like it, but this deserves attention.

As first reported by the Globe and Mail, two former ambassadors to China — David Mulroney and Guy St-Jacques — have both come forward to describe calls they received from a senior bureaucrat. That bureaucrat purported to be speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and reportedly urged both men to clear any future statements on China with the government first and to avoid publicly criticizing or contradicting the government.

Mr. Mulroney told the Globe and Mail that he is “deeply concerned about the way foreign policy is being managed, and don’t wish to be silenced or co-opted.”

We should all be disturbed by this.

WATCH: (April 30, 2019) Scheer slams Liberals over handling of Chinese diplomatic crisis

These two men are not currently in diplomatic roles or working for the government, so it’s entirely reasonable for them to publicly share their opinions and entirely reasonable for media outlets to seek  out their insight and expertise. The government has no business trying to control what they say. Frankly, this kind of message control and aversion to public criticism is the sort of thing we expect from the Chinese government, not our own.

These former diplomats are not partisans with an agenda or an axe to grind. Moreover, they’re wise enough to understand when public criticism might go too far or might complicate a delicate international situation. So if they have criticisms about how the government is handling the China situation, then we deserve to know that.

For their part, the PMO denies that there was any directive to control the statements from these two former ambassadors. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland apparently even phoned Mr. St-Jacques to reassure him that no one was trying to muzzle him But if the bureaucrat who made the calls claimed to be acting on PMO authority, then clearly someone is not telling the truth. So how do we get to that truth?

READ MORE: Canada to hold off on Huawei 5G decision until after the election: sources

The foreign affairs committee would have been one option. The opposition motion called on the two former ambassadors to be called, the senior bureaucrat who placed the two calls, and the foreign affairs minister herself. None of that will happen now.

One can criticize the government for how they’ve handled the China matter, but I think most Canadians also recognize that it’s a challenging situation and that China has acted in an irrational way. It would probably be unfair to hold up this whole affair as an indictment of the government.

However, the phone calls to the former ambassadors, and the subsequent attempts to prevent a proper understanding of what went on here, do indeed reflect poorly on the Liberals. Moreover, the apparent pattern of trying to stifle dissent — as evidence in this story, the SNC Lavalin scandal, and the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman Affair, reflects rather poorly on them, too.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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