Secrets? What Secrets?

André Pratte believes Canadians should not overestimate the information held on Parliament Hill.
By: /
September 18, 2011

Opposition parties have been calling for the resignation of Conservative MP Bob Dechert after it was revealed he had sent intimate e-mails to a journalist working for the Xinhua News Agency. The Chinese media are believed to be more interested in spying on foreign countries than in genuine reporting. As parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Mr. Dechert certainly lacked judgment when he got involved with a Chinese ‘journalist’. But does this story deserve all the attention it got?

There is a tendency on Parliament Hill, when that sort of sex-spy affair comes up, to forget that Canada is not a major player in international affairs. I’d be very surprised if Mr. Baird himself had in his mind or his briefcase information that, in the hands of the ‘enemy’, would have important consequences on world affairs, or even on Canada’s interests. This is even more the case for Mr. Dechert, even though the media, to make the story more interesting, chose to call him ‘a senior Harper government MP’. In my experience, Parliamentary Secretaries have no power whatsoever. They exist to replace the Minister in Parliament while he or she attends to more important business. Whatever statements they make have been written by bureaucrats and vetted by the minister’s political staff (or the reverse). 

That reminds me of Maxime Bernier, who had to resign after leaving ‘secret’ documents at his girlfriend’s apartment. The incident was a spectacular demonstration of carelessness that proved he was unfit to be part of Cabinet. But, had Julie Couillard read all 500 pages, would she have become a danger to Canada’s security? Had she given these to her former biker boyfriend, would he have been interested in the Harper government’s views on the future of NATO?

CSIS’s director Richard Fadden has warned that some Canadian politicians at the provincial level have fallen under the control of foreign governments, probably China. Still, I wonder why exactly the Chinese would be interested in influencing the decisions of any of our provincial governments.

The truth is, now as in the past, reporters and politicians alike cannot resist these James Bond-like stories. Remember Pierre Sévigny, war hero and Associate Defense minister in John Diefenbaker’s government?  When it was discovered that Sévigny had had a close relationship with Gerda Munsinger, a prostitute from East Germany, a huge controversy erupted, threatening to derail Lester Pearson’s minority government. Yet, again, what crucial information could Sévigny have shared with Munsinger?

Like most Canadians, I like to think that our country can, as a G8 middle power, play an significant role in world affairs. Yet I have a very hard time believing that our foreign policy officers carry with them information so sensitive that, in a spy’s hands, it could have a major impact in world or continental affairs. 

Photo courtesy of Reuters.