Jean-Pierre Kingsley served as Canada’s chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007.
When I was initially contacted by the media last month concerning the Chinese government’s reported interference in our 2019 and 2021 general elections, I stated that a public inquiry was required to pursue the matter as fully as possible by an independent authority. It was important, I believed, for the full restoration of the trust and the confidence in our electoral system.
Nothing that has been publicly divulged since has caused me to reconsider my call for a public inquiry. To the contrary, I have only been further convinced that it is the only course of action that will satisfy Canadians in coming to terms with what CSIS documents described as a brazen invasion of our electoral system by Beijing. My reaction would be the same no matter which foreign entity was sowing doubt in our democracy: Our elections belong to us and to no one else, and the mere threat that this is not 100-per-cent the case demands significant action.
I take small comfort in the conclusion by the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel – the group of senior public servants overseeing our surveillance of foreign election interference – that the Chinese government’s reported campaign did not affect which federal party was elected to government, nor compromise any individual riding results. Ultimately, the extent of this attack remains unknown to the public, as do the criteria that were applied to reach these conclusions. Last week, an Angus Reid poll found that nearly a quarter of Canadians surveyed now believe the 2021 election was “stolen”; that doubt can only be dispelled by such an inquiry.
In the absence of a transparent investigation, one is left to ask: Why were we not alerted of this interference during the 2019 general election, or at least after the event? Why didn’t we hear about it before the 2021 general election, either? Would this knowledge have better served Canadians?
The sanctity of Canada’s elections is the most crucial thing to defend. The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, the first independent and apolitical electoral management body in the world when it was established in 1920, has given generations of Canadians confidence in their electoral process, to the envy of countries the world over. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Canada 12th in its recent annual survey of the state of democracy in 167 countries across the globe, giving our electoral process and pluralism a perfect 10 out of 10 score.
While we should know how the matter was handled at the government and prime ministerial level, it is essential to our democracy that we delve specifically into the details of this foreign-interference campaign if we are effectively to guard against similar attempts in the future. We need to know what messaging was considered an intrusion in our elections, and what it actually looks like. We need to know which social media platforms were utilized, how often, who paid for the messages, and exactly who and which countries were involved in these efforts. Our country’s best experts should be available to such an inquiry.
We also need to know how money was handled at every step of the way in the process, how party memberships and donations were processed, and how voting proceeded from the initial nomination of the candidates to their actual candidacy. In a way that very few countries around the world have, Canada has succeeded in cracking the toughest nut in elections, and politics in general: money. We regulate election fundraising very effectively, in part thanks to Elections Canada’s diligent publication of candidates’ expense reports and the names of people who contributed to their campaigns on its website. But if these provisions were breached, we must know by whom and how it happened.
We may also need to consider adding an independent observer to the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel whose role would be to directly represent and inform Canadians whenever any such intrusion manifests itself.
When I served as chief electoral officer, I was reminded time and time again that our electoral system belongs to Canadians alone – not to any political party, and not to any individual and certainly not to any foreign entity. The strength of our system lies in the trust that Canadians have in it, and in their acceptance of election results, which in turn grants governments the legitimacy that’s essential to their work of preserving our democratic values and way of life. A public inquiry to demystify to Canadians what happened and what protections are in place should be our first priority – and hopefully, if we act urgently, Canadians’ confidence will be significantly restored before the next general election.