Monday, 22 Apr 2024

COMMENTARY: Ambassador John McCallum needs to go

If you had told me Canada’s ambassador to China had “misspoken” on a matter related to that country, I might have assumed that he had accidentally referred to Xi Jinping as Hu Jintao or mixed up Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Knowing full well the mess created this week by the comments from Ambassador John McCallum, it is a laughable proposition to chalk it all up to some sort of slip of the tongue. This lame excuse is an attempt to save face for both McCallum and the government, but it requires a very determined and deliberate suspension of disbelief on the part of the general public.

No one should be buying it. The ambassador is either in over his head or is conflicted by some sort of animosity toward the U.S. or fondness for the Chinese government or both (previous evidence points to the latter). If he’s not prepared to resign, then he needs to be removed from his position. The stakes are too high for either a bumbling fool or a rogue senior diplomat.

To recap: on Tuesday, McCallum convened what was essentially a secret news conference in Markham, Ont., involving only Chinese-language media (English-language media were not informed of the event) in which he spoke at great length about the ways that detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou could avoid extradition to the United States.

In fact, McCallum sounded more like a member of Meng’s defence team than an official representative of the Canadian government. He spoke of the U.S. president’s “political involvement” in the case, the “extraterritorial aspect” of the case, and Canada’s differing view from the Americans on the question of Iran sanctions.

So, not only did McCallum throw our American allies under the bus, he threw everyone at the RCMP and Department of Justice involved in Meng’s arrest under the bus, too. The courts will ultimately determine whether Meng has a strong case against extradition. It smacks of inappropriate political involvement to weigh in on such matters, especially if it taints the case or raises expectations on the part of the Chinese government about a favourable outcome.

By Thursday afternoon, McCallum was walking it all back. He released a statement expressing his “regret” that his comments created confusion and blaming it all on the questionable assertion that he “misspoke.” The fact that he would have to preface his remarks by noting that “Canada is a country governed by the rule of law” illustrates just how deeply he has stepped in it here.

When the story first broke, we were left with only two logical explanations: either McCallum was expressing his own personal views and not speaking on behalf of the government or he was indeed conveying the official position of the government — a position that everyone from the prime minister on down was unwilling to publicly articulate.

If Canada plans on capitulating to China, the least the government can do is to come clean with Canadians. For now, that appears not to be the case.

If nothing else, McCallum’s statement confirms that he was not speaking on behalf of the government. But the statement does not absolve him. Creating this sort of confusion on such a crucial matter is simply unacceptable.

Remember, McCallum wasn’t ambushed by reporters. He very deliberately assembled a select group of Chinese-language media and presumably had some idea of what he intended to say to them. If he was just improvising through it all, then that seems like incredibly reckless behaviour. If his words were deliberately chosen, then the “misspoke” excuse is not credible.

No one doubts that this current standoff with China is a difficult and delicate situation. But that’s all the more reason to be hypersensitive about the competence of the ambassador. Why on earth would it strike McCallum as a wise idea to raise the prospect of Canada not extraditing Meng given that the lives of Canadians potentially hang in the balance?

This is no time for amateur hour. McCallum needs to go.

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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