The interim leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, Nycole Turmel, has joined the chorus calling on MP Bob Dechert to resign as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs.
The Conservative MP from Ontario admitted on Friday that he had sent "flirtatious" emails to Shi Rong, a journalist working in Toronto for China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua.
"He should step down and there should be an investigation," Turmel told reporters in Quebec City, where her caucus is holding a retreat in advance of Parliament's return next week. "We believe it is inappropriate what happened. He's a key person."
The emails were sent in April 2010, when Dechert was serving as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice. Some members of the media received the messages when they were circulated to a wide distribution list of contacts from the journalist's email account late last week.
In his Friday statement, Dechert said Shi's account was hacked as part of a domestic dispute.
One of the emails was signed "Love, Bob" but Dechert denies they represent evidence of a full-fledged romantic affair.
Security questions raised
Dechert, who was appointed parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs in May, said he met Shi while doing interviews for Chinese-language media and she became a friend. He maintains the emails were nothing more than a flirtation, but the relationship has raised questions given Shi’s employer.
Some Xinhua journalists have been linked to the Chinese government's intelligence-gathering activities.
Although his responsibilities as one of the parliamentary secretaries for foreign affairs do not include Asia, Dechert is on the executive of the Canada-China Legislative Association, a group of MPs and senators who work on exchanges of parliamentary delegations to foster the relationship between the two countries. He also travelled to China with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on government business in 2009.
On Tuesday morning, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he's known Dechert for a long time and he trusts him still. For several days now, Baird has downplayed the possibility that the emails indicate any security threat.
NDP MP Jack Harris accused the government of inconsistency.
"This government let loose the CSIS director to talk about influences by foreign governments in Canada and here we have what is commonly regarded as the next best thing to a spy agency with one of their representatives in this kind of communication with the parliamentary secretary," Harris said Tuesday on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon. "The government's messaging doesn't ring true here."
"To dismiss this out of hand which the government has done doesn't do justice to the situation and the concerns that Canadians would necessarily have," adds Harris, who called on Dechert to resign.
"It's an unfortunate lack of judgment on Bob's part," said Joyce Murray, a B.C. Liberal MP who is also on the executive of the Canada-China group. "It damages the credibility of MPs that work to build these relationships [between countries]."
Murray stopped short of calling for Dechert's resignation on Tuesday, but said it only takes common sense to know that this relationship is unwise. "It undermines confidence that MPs are focused on business," she said, claiming such a revelation could leave the impression their work is "vulnerable to personal agendas."
Murray was unimpressed with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's comments on the situation Tuesday, which she found too dismissive of the possibility of a security threat.
"It's up to the government to take it seriously," she said.
Murray finds the Dechert emails particularly unfortunate given the current state of Canada's relationship with China.
"The prime minister and his team did such a poor job relationship-building in China for the first few years [of the Harper government]," she said, calling Harper's early efforts "botched diplomacy."
While things had started to shift more recently to a less confrontational approach to the trading relationship, "the Chinese are very sensitive to issues of image and respect," Murray said, deeming Dechert's behaviour "not helpful."