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COLUMN: Carol Hughes on possible election interference

We need a public inquiry into Chinese election interference says Algoma - Manitoulin - Kapuskasing Member of Parliament
Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. File photo

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP, Carol Hughes writes a regular column about initiatives and issues impacting our community.

As Canadians, we like to assume that our electoral system is beyond reproach.

We certainly have a number of checks and balances in our system that help keep elections safe and secure. We limit the amount of money any individual can donate to election candidates and ensure that corporate interests can’t unduly influence elected representatives.

We audit candidates’ expenses to ensure they are following electoral rules. However, our system certainly isn’t perfect, and recently, leaked intelligence reports from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) suggest that diplomats from Beijing and proxies for China's Communist Party have interfered in our two most recent elections.

Global News first broke a story based on leaked CSIS details involving a campaign of foreign interference from China that involved 11 candidates running in the 2019 election. During that same election period, CSIS allegedly urged the Liberal Party to rescind the candidacy of one of their candidates, now an MP, over allegations that the individual was part of the Chinese foreign interference network.

Additionally, CSIS leaks also allege that Chinese diplomats and proxies made cash donations to candidates that went undeclared to assist candidates that were more likely to be friendly with China to beat those who were more aggressive to Beijing. These allegations affect Liberal and Conservative candidates running in the 2021 election.

These are significant assertions that undercut Canadian’s faith in our free and fair elections. The Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel, which is comprised of senior public servants, noted that “national security agencies saw attempts at foreign interference, but not enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity.”

While this is an important line of distinction that indicates they believe the recent elections have been fair, it’s also important that we ensure that our elections now and in the future are free from foreign meddling. It’s also important to note that the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel, while comprised of exceptionally talented individuals, are still civil servants working on behalf of the government.

This is why a public inquiry into foreign election interference is needed. It’s important to ensure that any examination of our electoral system, and of foreign actors trying to influence it, be done at arms-length from the government itself.

It’s also important that we examine the influence any foreign actors may have on our elections, not just from China, but from other state actors as well, such as Russia, whom CSIS has repeatedly warned has been attempting to interfere in our elections through social media bot farms.

The Prime Minister, rather than calling a public inquiry, has appointed a Special Rapporteur to examine these allegations. That individual is former Governor General David Johnston.

Appointed by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Johnston is seen as a fairly reasonable selection, although being a board member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation certainly doesn’t serve him well as an impartial arbiter. Mr. Johnston may very well recommend calling a public inquiry into the matter, depending on his findings. However, it does feel like this move is simply delaying the inevitable.

The NDP put forward a motion at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to call a public inquiry into the matter. That motion passed. However, the Prime Minister is still the one who needs to initiate the order, under the Inquiries Act. The NDP motion is also applied more broadly to investigate abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments, wherever that may lead, including interference by other nations such as Russia and Iran.

A Conservative motion was also brought to the floor of the House of Commons, but with a narrower focus of examining potential electoral interference by the Chinese only.

It seems that Conservatives are more concerned with the optics of electoral interference than examining the issue more broadly. If we are to get to the bottom of which foreign actors are actually involved in interfering with Canadian elections through a public inquiry, let the inquiry commit to doing the work wherever it leads.

Canadians deserve to know their elections are fair, and an independent public and transparent inquiry is exactly how we can get those answers.