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Canadian appointee rejects probe into China election interference; opposition blasts decision

TORONTO (AP) — A Canadian government appointee on Tuesday rejected holding a public inquiry into leaked intelligence that alleged China interfered in Canada’s federal elections, drawing allegations of a cover-up from the Conservative opposition.

Opposition lawmakers have demanded a full public inquiry on the alleged Chinese interference since reports about it earlier this year by the Globe and Mail newspaper. It cited unidentified intelligence sources that China preferred to see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals re-elected in the 2021 election and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

Trudeau appointee David Johnston announced recommendations Tuesday saying that a public inquiry into the leaked materials could not take place because of the sensitivity of the intelligence. However, he recommended public hearings on broader issues, including on foreign influence in Canada's political system.

Johnston wrote that he found no example of Trudeau, his ministers or their offices "knowingly ignoring intelligence, advice or recommendations on foreign interference or being driven by partisan considerations in dealing with these issues.”

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Trudeau said he would abide by Johnston’s recommendation to not hold a public inquiry.

Opposition Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre immediately slammed Johnston's recommendation, saying that it covers up Beijing's influence in Canada. He also alleged Johnston was compromised because he has family ties with Trudeau.

Trudeau appointed Johnston, a family friend and a widely respected former governor general, to study the issue in March and make recommendations.

Johnston said the government had neither ignored, nor failed to act on, the intelligence and said media reports on the leaked intelligence lacked context and in some cases were wrong. “The leaks are based on partial information. In some cases documents don’t tell the full story,” he said.

He also said it was troubling and damaging that intelligence was leaked. He said he couldn't speculate on who leaked the intelligence or what their motives were.

The governor general is the representative of Britain’s monarch as head of state, and holds a mostly ceremonial and symbolic position. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Johnston governor general in 2010 and his term was extended under Trudeau until 2017. Johnston is also a former member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Trudeau said Tuesday that he had full confidence in Johnston's handling of his role, and played down the importance of any family connections. “I saw him a few times as a kid. I got to know him after he was appointed to governor general by Stephen Harper," Trudeau said.

Poilievre, the opposition leader, said Johnston “has helped Trudeau cover up the influence by Beijing in our democracy.”

“David Johnson is a ski buddy, chalet neighbor, family friend and member of the Trudeau foundation. He has no business in this job because it is a fake job that he is incapable of doing impartially and none of his recommendations can be taken seriously because he is in a conflict of interest,” Poilievre said.

Trudeau has said that all political leaders agree that the election outcomes in 2019 and in 2021 were not affected by foreign interference.

Earlier this month, Canada expelled a Chinese diplomat whom Canada’s spy agency alleged was involved in a plot to intimidate an opposition Conservative lawmaker and his relatives in Hong Kong after the Conservative lawmaker criticized Beijing’s human rights record. China then announced the expulsion of a Canadian diplomat in retaliation this month.

China regularly uses threats against family members to intimidate critics in the Chinese diaspora.

China-Canada relations nosedived after China detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecoms giant Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder, at the behest of U.S. authorities who accused her of fraud.