In the midst of a major foreign policy dispute with Beijing, what is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do with Ambassador John McCallum?
Late on Thursday afternoon, Canada’s envoy to China issued a statement to say he had misspoken when he met with a group of Chinese-language journalists in the GTA on Monday to discuss the extradition prospects of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Over that encounter, he had listed what he described as the solid arguments Meng could invoke to fend off the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to extradite her. McCallum had also said he felt a successful extradition application “would not be a happy outcome.”
In his statement, he now writes that his comments did “not accurately represent my position on the issue.” Maybe, but that is an awful lot of words to take back. What is more certain is that those words did not reflect the government’s position.
For weeks now, Trudeau had maintained that Meng’s arrest at the request of the U.S. government and the extradition process that is expected to ensue was a matter for the courts to decide — absent political interference. McCallum’s comments suggested otherwise.
That would presumably depend on the freeing of the two Canadians who Canada believes are detained in China in retaliation for Meng’s arrest and to the commuting of the death sentence imposed on a third.
It is not the first time loose lips sank McCallum’s ship. Last year Trudeau had to defend him for saying Canada has more in common with China under President Xi Jinping than the U.S. under Donald Trump. At last word, the prime minister was again determined to stand by his ambassador.
But this time, the damage is more serious. For notwithstanding McCallum’s attempt to realign his position with that of his government, the fact is that the last word on the Meng matter will likely be in the hands not of a judge but of the justice minister.
Unless the courts turn down the U.S. request, David Lametti will have to make the final decision as to whether to sign off on Meng’s extradition. It will be harder going forward to argue that this is an apolitical call.
It is highly unlikely that McCallum was flying completely solo when he signed up for his candid chat with the Chinese-language media.
Yes, upon coming to power, Trudeau’s government did set out to liberate its foreign envoys from the tight leash Stephen Harper had kept them on. But even a ruling party willing to give its diplomatic service more rope does not issue them a license to shape its communications on sensitive issues as they see fit.
As envoy to China, McCallum has been at ground zero of the deterioration of China’s relation with Canada. He has been and remains in the day-to-day loop of the government’s strategy with direct and presumably quick access to its top levels. One would assume he would have run the idea of making himself available to the Chinese-language media by someone in political authority.
If one accepts the ambassador’s statement at face value, the most credible explanation is that the government did dispatch him to meet Canada-based Chinese-language journalists to drive home the message that this country’s legal system is not stacked against Meng and her extradition not a foregone conclusion and that the outspoken McCallum ended up overshooting the target.
That begs the larger question of whether, with Canada in a tight spot, Trudeau’s point man in Beijing is qualified to help the government find its way out of the current minefield.
The timing of the storm over McCallum’s comments is anything but ideal for the government and not just on the front of Canada’s relations with China and U.S.
With Parliament about to reopen for the last stretch before the fall election, the Liberals can ill afford to look anything but on top of the major files that are thrown their way.
Most voters may not pay close attention to the day-to-day handling of Meng’s extradition case but as the election nears, they will be paying more attention to the larger issue of the managerial competence of the government.
With the pre-election hostilities are about resume with a vengeance on Parliament Hill, McCallum has handed the Conservative opposition the gift of a field day. Calls for his firing will almost certainly not be pre-empted by his statement.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert