To date, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been lethargic about strengthening oversight of Canada’s elections.
Despite pleas from Elections Canada to pass any changes to electoral law by this past April, the Liberals made little effort to get Bill C-76 – aimed largely at tightening controls of third-party spending and restricting foreign interference – through before Parliament’s summer recess. And they only recently managed, 18 months after the retirement of the country’s chief electoral officer, to name the person who will serve that role heading into next year’s election.
Now, the Liberals appear inclined to get more ambitious. At a cabinet retreat this week, ministers will talk about whether their government should introduce additional rules to help our democracy adapt to the digital era. A hint of the conversation’s scope comes from the expected presence, among other invited experts, of Taylor Owen – co-author of a recent Public Policy Forum paper titled “Democracy Divided,” which presented a range of policy options that include increasing social-media companies’ liability for content on their platforms, new hate-speech rules and giving Canadians more control over use of their personal data.
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If this is a starting point for an evolving discussion of how to preserve the integrity and civility of our campaigns and civic discourse, it’s to be welcomed. Canada is not immune from the phenomena recently evident in elections elsewhere, from malicious outside interference to political polarization caused by parties’ use of new communication tools.
But if the Liberals want to imminently beef up C-76, as reported before their retreat, they should proceed with caution.
Strengthening provisions already within the proposed legislation would be one thing. And it would be hard to argue against some additional transparency measures, for instance around the disclosure of who paid for digital ads, if there is time to implement them. But it’s too late to throw new ideas about restrictions around behaviour, such as further changes to spending limits, into the legislative mix now.
Governments’ changes to election law are always fraught. The way to avoid suspicions of self-interest is to move in a measured way that seeks bipartisan consensus, not to announce major proposals a year before the next campaign.