The Hamilton Spectator
Get serious on election meddling
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presumably meant to be reassuring when he commented on the latest revelations about Chinese interference in Canada’s last two federal elections. He failed in at least a couple of ways.
After it was reported last week that the Chinese government orchestrated an extensive campaign of disinformation, undeclared cash donations and string-pulling in an attempt to influence public opinion and limit the Liberals to another minority government, the prime minister had this to say:
“All Canadians can have confidence that the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 elections were determined by Canadians, and Canadians alone, at the voting booth.”
The first problem with that statement is that no one is claiming that non-Canadians, and certainly not Chinese agents, actually showed up at the polls to vote. Nor is anyone claiming that Chinese-orchestrated interference was extensive or effective enough to affect the overall result of the elections.
That’s a classic straw man — an argument no one is making and that can be brushed aside with ease.
The concern is quite different but still worrisome: that China has been meddling in a host of indirect ways designed to swing public opinion in its favour and affect the outcome in some specific places. Oh, and that are often illegal to boot.
To that the government has offered no convincing reply. On the contrary, it seems remarkably complacent about the latest information, contained in internal documents prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and reported by the Globe and Mail.
The government’s response to these revelations, and other ones last fall concerning the 2019 election, can be summed up as: we know all about this, nothing new here, it’s under control, please move on.
That wasn’t working very well before (a Commons committee has been looking into the 2019 vote) and it certainly isn’t going to work now after the latest dump of CSIS documents.
Even if the overall result of the elections wasn’t at stake, it’s impossible to tell what effect the Chinese operation might have had in the 11 ridings it reportedly targeted in 2019, involving nine Liberal and two Conservative MPs.
One former Conservative MP, Kenny Chiu, claims he lost his Vancouver-area seat in 2021 because Beijing used Chinese social media to paint him as “anti-Chinese” in a riding with many Chinese-heritage voters.
Isn’t that serious all by itself?
We don’t need to accept everything in the CSIS information at face value to be concerned. For example, a former Chinese consulgeneral in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, reportedly boasted about defeating two Conservative MPs. She may well have been just puffing herself up in front of her bosses — people do that sort of thing — but who knows?
What’s missing from the government’s response isn’t just stronger words, though those would be welcome. What’s missing is any sign of concrete action to stop and indeed punish this kind of meddlesome behaviour by a foreign power that has shown it doesn’t respect our country or our government.
One of the actions reportedly orchestrated through China’s “diplomats” in Canada involved persuading sympathetic or intimidated people to donate to a candidate that Beijing wanted to see elected. The donor got a partial tax refund, and the embassy or consulate then kicked back the rest.
If that’s really been going on, it would be entirely illegal under Canada’s election laws. But there’s no sign that the RCMP or any other body has been unleashed to investigate and punish such activity.
If it was really organized by Chinese representatives, they should be ordered out of the country pronto.
Canada has toughened its stance toward China in some other areas — notably in cracking down on university research funded by Chinese military or security entities. That makes the government’s continuing complacency on election interference even harder to explain.