In a world where misinformation spreads as fast as virus in a room full of people, context is important.
These are the sentiments of Mark Gerretsen, Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston and the Islands and Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, after comments he made during a dispute with MP Kevin Vuong (Spadina—Fort York, Independent). The MPs traded verbal jabs regarding foreign interference – specifically that of the Communist Party of China (CPC) – during Adjournment Proceedings of the House of Commons on Thursday, Mar. 23, 2023.
The matter arose in the House when MP Laurel Collins (Victoria, NDP) turned her line of questioning to Gerretsen as the Parliamentary Secretary.
“The recent allegations about foreign interference are incredibly serious. They further erode confidence in our electoral systems, and the Liberals, today, voted against a public inquiry. They do not seem to see the damage they are doing to individuals and also to communities that are at risk of being stigmatized. We need a transparent, independent public inquiry. At this point, it is the only way to get to the bottom of this,” Collins said. “Will the member commit to pushing for a transparent, independent public inquiry?”
Gerretsen responded, “I have been very clear. I said in a speech earlier today in the House that when the issue first came to light, being on the procedure and House affairs committee, I initially asked myself why we are not having a public inquiry. It makes the most sense.”
He continued, “However, expert after expert and witness after witness who came before the committee told us the best place to deal with highly classified information is not in the public domain… It is not the answer I was hoping to hear, but it is an answer that makes sense, and it is an answer that I think warrants consideration.”
Gerretsen went on to point out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed a “special expert” – former governor general David Johnston – to look specifically at the issue of foreign interference, noting that, should Johnston determine that a public inquiry is the best way forward, the Liberal government has said it will support that recommendation.
It was then that Vuong addressed the Speaker of the House regarding Gerretsen’s response, foreign interference, and the appointment of Johnston. His complete comments and a back and forth between the two MPs can be read on the Government of Canada’s Open Parliament website, but it was the conclusion of those comments that have resulted in accusations online that Gerretsen wanted to physically fight Vuong.
“Mr. Speaker, there is a party line being toed here,” Vuong said. “The problem is, what party line, the Liberal Party’s or the Communist Party of China’s?” He then called on the government to “step up and provide strong investigatory powers through the special rapporteur so that Mr. Johnston can unearth names and evidence of foreign interference in Canada, especially in Vancouver and Toronto during the last two elections.”
Gerretsen immediately responded, and his ire at the accusation that he was aligning with the CPC was palpable.
“Mr. Speaker, if I understood that member correctly, he just questioned whether I was toeing a Liberal Party line or a Communist Party of China line,” said Gerretsen.
“My response to that member is this: Let us go outside and he can say that to me in public where he does not have the parliamentary privilege he has in this room.”
It is that final sentence that led to online commenters speculating that Gerretsen was “calling on” MP Vuong, so to speak. Content creators speculated that Gerretsen was attempting to physically fight the Toronto-based MP by saying “let us go outside,” failing to notice the “parliamentary privilege” Gerretsen referred to.
In fact, MPs often suggest that their colleagues “go outside” to repeat accusations levelled inside the House of Commons. It speaks to parliamentary privilege, which allows politicians within the House the “rights and immunities,” including protection from being sued for defamation over anything they’ve said within the House of Commons. MPs commonly suggest their colleagues step outside to repeat accusations as a means of asserting that they would not make such allegations without parliamentary privilege protecting them. It is for this reason, Gerretsen said, he specifically included the word “room” in his statement.
“In this particular exchange, the individual was basically suggesting that I was working for China and toeing China’s party lines, which I took great offense to, obviously, as I imagine most people would. And I said [something which has] actually been said many times in the House of Commons, which is, ‘why don’t you say that to me outside the House of Commons, where you don’t have parliamentary privilege,’” Gerretsen explained in an interview with Kingstonist on Tuesday, Mar. 28, 2023.
“You can say anything in the House of Commons, it cannot be used against you in a court, in civil or criminal action. And that’s just part of promoting freedom of speech and democracy. So, quite often, people will make severely outlandish claims that could be defamatory in nature, or that are defamatory in nature, in the House of Commons, but then once they step outside and they’re in front of the media, they would never say the same thing,” the Kingston and the Islands MP continued.
“So, in the context in which that’s quite often said, when they say ‘step outside,’ we’re talking about stepping outside of the room… the media is located right outside the room.”
Should an MP who has made such assertions do so “outside the room,” particularly to the media, they are then liable to be sued for defamation of character, Gerretsen explained, noting that anyone who follows federal politics – particularly the happenings within the House of Commons – would know that was precisely what he was referring to.
Meanwhile, to all of those who are now trying to say that he wanted to physically fight the Spadina—Fort York MP, Gerretsen said that couldn’t be further from the truth, and that it ironically plays into the spread of misinformation MP Vuong was participating in in the first place.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a rise of this misinformation, accusations that are based on complete rumor… look at this incident on its own: a lot of misinformation is spreading out there about what I did and what I said, and what my intentions were. People are taking advantage of it. So, we’re living in this world where there’s so much more of that. And people come in [to the House of Commons] and they say stuff that is defamatory to one’s character. And they can do it, because they have that parliamentary privilege,” said Gerretsen.
“I certainly was not referring to engaging in some kind of physical altercation.”