The federal Liberal government has used two lines of defence and deflection to avoid the mounting criticisms it has inexplicably ignored China’s efforts to interfere in two successive Canadian federal elections, most alarmingly in 2021.
The first, voiced from the start by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is that the integrity of the 2021 vote was not compromised by foreign interference, with the implication being that whatever Beijing was up to, those efforts bore no fruit.
The second is the continual invocation of the mantra of confidentiality by a parade of officials as they appear before the parliamentary committee attempting to probe the election meddling by China brought to light by The Globe and Mail and by Global News.
The Globe has revealed details of China’s efforts to ensure that the Liberals won a minority mandate in the 2021 election, including disinformation campaigns against Conservative candidates and illegally aiding preferred candidates with undeclared cash and with volunteer workers.
The Conservatives have said those efforts may have cost them up to nine seats, although they do not contend that Beijing’s election meddling changed who won the overall election and formed government.
The first line of defence is to tell Canadians there’s nothing to see; the second, that there’s nothing that can be said. They both miss the point that transparency is needed – now – to avoid eroding Canadians’ faith in the electoral process.
The Liberals, of course, tried to portray this week’s report from the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel as proof everything was hunky-dory in the 2021 vote.
Indeed, the panel did conclude that while there were attempts at foreign interference, those efforts did not meet its (deliberately high) threshold of impairing election integrity.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on March 2 his government is looking at recommendations that have been made in an independent report that reviews protocol designed to inform Canadians about election interference. Trudeau says it's important to get the tools right in order to protect democracy.
The Canadian Press
For the unschooled, that might translate as “hunky-dory.” But the panel’s report goes on to say the panel interpreted the protocol to mean that only incidents that threatened the “integrity of the entire election” crossed the threshold. Problems within a riding or ridings would not.
That is hugely significant for the current debate over the 2021 election. True, even a flip of nine seats would not have given the Tories victory. But it’s disingenuous, at best, to assert that a closer seat count would not have mattered.
Beyond the hypothetical, however, there is a more fundamental problem. Even if the results of only a single riding were changed by Beijing’s malevolent efforts, that is one too many contaminated campaigns. The threshold for the panel’s call is as high as it is to minimize the possibility of a warning over interference in an election itself becoming a distorting factor in the vote. That concern is no longer a factor.
We can dispense with the pretense that the panel’s threshold for meddling in 2021 should be the threshold today for guiding the debate over China’s interference, and what the Liberals have (or have not) done about it.
Clearly, that makes it very much in the public interest to know what the various guardians of Canada’s national security and election security are doing to dig into revelations from The Globe and others. So far their answer has been to hold up the word “confidentiality” as a talisman.
Of course, there is one notable exception: the head of CSIS was perfectly happy to share that there’s an internal hunt underway to find out who leaked classified information.
There are some legitimate reasons to safeguard some information about ongoing probes, although it would seem safe to assume that China is well aware of China’s efforts. But the constant invocation of confidentiality has the effect of shielding the government from scrutiny by Parliament.
Take Caroline Simard, Commissioner of Canada Elections, who told the committee on Thursday that her office is reviewing allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 campaigns. As for details – well, confidentiality.
But the Elections Act allows the commissioner to disclose confidential information she determines to be in the public interest. Her office noted that the need to protect an informant, or information under a sealing order, could supersede such a determination. Beyond that, Ms. Simard is free to tell Canadians what she is doing to uproot any wrongdoing.
Her failure to do so, along with the stubborn secrecy of other officials up to and including the Prime Minister, risks delivering Beijing its most prized goal – tarnishing Canadians’ faith in the inviolability of our elections.