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editorial

The United States is in a high clamour over alleged foreign tampering in its election last November. Here in Canada, a small but important foreign-influence debate is just getting going.

Joan Crockatt, a former Conservative MP, has alleged in a complaint to Elections Canada that "the outcome of the 2015 election was skewed by money from wealthy foreigners" donated to a third-party group called Leadnow.

Ms. Crockatt was one of 25 Tory MPs who lost their seats in ridings targeted by Leadnow's strategic-voting campaign. Others are also speaking up about foreign donations to registered third-party groups. They may have a point.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper, the party's deputy justice critic, has sent a letter to Yves Côté, the commissioner of Canada Elections, asking him to investigate eight groups that were registered as third-party organizations in the 2015 election, and which received a total of $693,023 from an American organization called the Tides Foundation during the election year.

Mr. Cooper points out that federal law prohibits third-party groups from spending foreign donations on election advertising.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who served as chief electoral officer for 17 years until 2007, weighed in on Wednesday when he said that loopholes in the Canada Elections Act allowing third-party groups to accept foreign donations are a real problem.

"This back door whereby foreign money came into Canada must be shut," he said.

And Mr. Côté is on the record as being concerned about a law that allows third-party groups to legally accept unlimited donations from foreign sources, as long as the money is donated outside of the six-month period before an election writ is dropped, and is not spent on election advertising.

Did groups that received foreign donations use that money on advertising during the 2015 election? Such a claim would be almost impossible to prove.

Take Leadnow. A left-wing group, it wanted to see former prime minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives defeated. To further that goal, it spent a fortune on polls to identify ridings where the combined Liberal and NDP votes were enough to unseat the Tory incumbents. It then told like-minded voters in those ridings how to cast their ballot in order to unseat their Tory MP.

Leadnow says that 17 per cent of its funding comes from foreign donors, but it says the other 83 per cent comes from Canadians. Figuring out which dollars Leadnow – or groups like the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace Canada that got grants from the Tides Foundation – spent on election advertising is an unsolvable puzzle.

Besides, most of Leadnow's 2015 campaign isn't considered "election advertising" under the Canada Elections Act. The act says that advertising does not include polling, or calling electors, or canvassing door-to-door, or sending an e-mail to someone who has donated to your group or is a member of your organization. Leadnow and other third-parties were legally allowed to spend as much as they wanted – so long as they spent it on something other than advertising.

This is the same part of the law that exempts a newspaper's coverage from being considered "election advertising." It also protects unions that recommend candidates to their members, and individuals posting their political opinions on Facebook.

Democracies want people to be able to say what they think, and to organize to do so. So if like-minded people band together and use polling, digital technology and door knocking to promote a party, or to promote the defeat of a party, there are strong reasons against limiting them. Way back when Mr. Harper was running the National Citizens Coalition, he argued as much.

But at the same time, there is something problematic about an elections law that lets third parties accept unlimited cash from corporate and union donors, and even foreign donors, as long as the money doesn't arrive in the six months before the writ is dropped, and isn't spent on election advertising. Canada has strengthened political party fundraising and spending rules, but the barn door is wide open when it comes to third parties.

And in at least one province – Ontario – the governing party for years used the loophole of non-existent third-party rules to get around restrictions on party fundraising and spending. The danger is of this spreading to federal politics.

To prevent it, Parliament should consider extending the current election spending limits on third parties to all campaign expenses, not just advertising. It should also consider limits, or a ban, on foreign donations to groups that want to be registered as third parties during elections.

Both these actions would help close off a potential back channel for foreign influence on Canadian elections. The trick is how to do that without unduly limiting the rights of Canadians.