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McCallum fired for telling the truth

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Generally, journalists prefer interviewing an ambassador who is a political appointee rather than a career diplomat. The former politicians are usually more comfortable speaking to journalists and have enough influence to be able to speak their minds, or at least to a greater extent than career diplomats for whom the ability to be discreet is sacrosanct. Political appointees give good quotes, while career diplomats tend to couch their words carefully.

John McCallum, Justin Trudeau’s former immigration minister and a 16-year veteran of the House of Commons, learned that the hard way this week when he was forced to resign as ambassador to China for speaking out of turn not once, but twice.

Mr. McCallum in a news conference with Chinese-language journalists in his old riding of Markham, Ont., suggested to reporters on Jan. 22 that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, out on bail in Vancouver after her Dec. 1 arrest, could have good arguments to convince a judge not to extradite her to the United States for alleged crimes related to violating sanctions against Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump last month mused about intervening in Ms. Meng’s case if it could help the U.S. and China reach a trade deal, hence Mr. McCallum’s reasoning that she had a case to make against extradition in that she could show it was for political purposes. Mr. McCallum also said the U.S. could cut a deal with China to release two Canadians detained there on national security grounds in exchange for Ms. Meng’s freedom.

Two days later, he was forced to apologize for those remarks, seen as freelancing outside the government line, which was that Canada is letting the judicial process play out without political interference.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when on Jan. 25 a StarMetro Vancouver journalist reported Mr. McCallum said it “would be great for Canada” if the U.S. scrapped its extradition request.

By weighing in on the Meng case, Mr. McCallum, a former Liberal minister, could be seen to have prejudiced it himself. He should have taken the old political line that “it would be inappropriate to comment on a case before the courts.” His analysis was sound, though. The U.S. president’s comments could, in the end, help Ms. Meng. And having a China-U.S. deal or another means of making the extradition process go away would benefit Canada, caught between two bickering superpowers.

The Chinese have condemned Mr. McCallum’s firing. As University of Toronto China expert Lynette Ong wrote in The Globe and Mail, “his dismissal is a setback to our efforts to secure the release of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. For diplomacy to work, our ambassador to China needs to be someone the government trusts; Mr. McCallum was that someone.”

Mr. McCallum was valued as an ambassador who could pick up the phone and get the PM, but with his benefits as a politician also came the risk of his straight-shooting style. As CBC analyst Chris Hall said, “He was never one to duck a question. Unlike most diplomats, he never bought into the notion of talking without saying anything.”

But the Trudeau government might have been better served with a career diplomat who could be more discreet. Chris Alexander, a former diplomat turned Conservative MP, noted to StarMetro Vancouver that diplomacy requires a very different skill set than politics, where with the latter “messaging can be bolder and risk-taking can more often result in rewards.” That’s a lesson both Mr. McCallum and Mr. Trudeau learned this week.

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