Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Tuesday that he has already commented on the flirtatious emails his parliamentary secretary Bob Dechert sent to a Chinese journalist and that he has nothing to add.
Baird was asked about Dechert by reporters on Parliament Hill following an update on Libya. The foreign affairs minister was asked to explain how the government can be sure that national security wasn't compromised by Dechert's relationship with Shi Rong, a journalist working in Toronto for China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua.
Baird's response was that he's already made a statement on the matter but he didn't acknowledge the security concerns that have been raised by some analysts who say Xinhua is tied to China's intelligence agencies and by opposition party critics who accuse Dechert of exercising poor judgment.
“The government has spoken to this, Mr. Dechert has spoken to this, I have spoken to this, I have nothing really additional,” Baird said. To other questions on Dechert, Baird said he's known the MP a long time and trusts him, and that he had nothing to say about Dechert accompanying Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a trip to China in 2009. Then the foreign affairs minister quickly ended the news conference and took no more questions.
Dechert, who is married, confirmed last Friday that he sent flirtatious emails to Shi, and apologized for "any harm caused to anyone by this situation.” Over the weekend, Baird called the attention to the story "ridiculous" and described Dechert as a "mild-mannered" man.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday that Dechert "denied any inappropriate behaviour. We have no information to suggest otherwise."
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 said the emails, sent in April 2010, were nothing more than a flirtation but the relationship has raised questions given Shi’s employer.
NDP MP Peter Julian, meeting with his party's caucus in Quebec City, called it a spectacular lapse in judgment and inappropriate on a professional level. He added he's confident Dechert will "make the right decision." Paul Dewar, the NDP's Foreign Affairs critic, called for Dechert's resignation Monday.
A Canadian-based Chinese-language newspaper is reporting that Shi will be leaving Toronto, if she hasn't already.
Emails sent in 2010
At the time the emails were sent, Dechert had just been made parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice.
In one email sent about midnight on April 17, 2010, Dechert thanked Shi for sending a photo of herself from seven years earlier. "You are so beautiful. I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute, I love it when you do that. Now, I miss you even more."
In another 2010 email, Dechert tells Shi to watch CPAC because he will smile for her as he stands to vote in the House of Commons that night. She replies that she will watch for him.
The correspondence was revealed last week in a mass email sent from Shi's account. Dechert said her account was hacked as part of a domestic dispute.
Dechert also serves on the Canada China Legislative Association, a parliamentary forum established in 1998 that "promotes the exchange of information between Canadian parliamentarians and representatives of the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China in order to encourage better understanding and closer ties between the two countries."
Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Harper, said MPs should be warned about Xinhua. "Everybody who works for the Chinese news agency is basically a member of their intelligence agency. And this should have been explained to ministers when they got their jobs, that you can't deal with reporters, Chinese reporters, as you might with a Western reporter," Flanagan said during an appearance on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon on Monday.
"So it is more serious than just a simple flirty letter, or middle-aged silliness on the part of an aging guy," said Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. "I'm not saying he should resign, but I don't know whether the briefings were inadequate."
A former senior intelligence official with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said Tuesday that Harper should be asking for Dechert's resignation and that the RCMP should do an investigation to determine the extent of his relationship with Shi and if she made any demands for information from him.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya said the reputation of Shi's news agency is well-known. "This particular news agency is well-known, well-documented as being part of the Chinese intelligence service. Every journalist is considered as an intelligence officer when they are posted abroad and all the Western agencies usually keep track of what these people are doing because we know their affiliation,” he told CBC News.
Juneau-Katsuya said he thinks Dechert probably didn't understand the seriousness of who he was dealing with, and that the connection between him and Shi should be considered a security risk.
Liberal Senator Jim Munson, a former journalist who worked in China and now serves with Dechert on the executive of the Canada-China Legislative Association, told CBC News the incident shows "poor judgment" and that Dechert should have known better.
"If you're talking to anyone [at Xinhua] it should have raised a flag that you are talking to the mouthpiece of the [Chinese] government, and it should be obvious that any kind of relationship could lead you to a place you don't want to be," said Munson.
Munson said he takes Dechert at his word that the relationship was limited to flirtatious emails, but still questions their appropriateness.
"As a parliamentary secretary why would he be involved with her in the first place? That's not the kind of mistake he should make as an adult," he said.
Munson said he would leave questions about Dechert's future to elected officials, but added, "It would be more honourable and less embarrassing for the government if he were to consider stepping out of the [parliamentary secretary] position."
Dechert's Conservative colleague on the China committee, MP Michael Chong, disagrees and called the controversy "much ado about nothing," adding it might be the case of an innocent mistake that media coverage is blowing out of proportion.
"Other people's sex lives aren't anybody's business," Chong said.