The Hamilton Spectator
Put democracy ahead of partisanship
Democratic institutions and events like elections rely on a foundation of trust and public confidence.
We must have faith that elections are fair, that votes are counted accurately and critically, that there’s not some hidden hand unduly, even illegally, influencing the political contest.
Any breakdown in that trust puts a cloud over the results and erodes the legitimacy of those elected. We only have to look south of the border to see the real dangers when that happens.
That’s why political parties here must be diligent in addressing concerns about election interference and at the same time, avoid irresponsibly fanning the worries for their partisan ends.
Which brings us to the fierce discussion unfolding in Ottawa in recent weeks with reports that China meddled in the 2021 federal election with the goal of seeing a Liberal minority government.
The Globe and Mail, citing secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) documents, has reported that the Chinese government took deliberate steps to target specific ridings.
An independent assessment of that election released last week said that national security agencies did see attempts at foreign interference, but not to a degree that it impacted the integrity of the election.
The report, by former senior civil servant Morris Rosenberg, does highlight CSIS concerns about foreign interference and singles out the Communist Party of China. “CSIS expressed concerns that China notably tried to target elected officials to promote their national interests and encouraged individuals to act as proxies on their behalf,” the report states.
The report cautions that activities attributed to China, like targeting elected officials to promote Chinese state interests, encouraging individuals to act as proxies and threatening members of the Chinese community in Canada, are not restricted to only elections. “Confronting these require strategies that operate on an ongoing basis,” it said.
Over two days last week, a parliamentary committee heard from senior bureaucrats charged with overseeing federal elections and national security.
The RCMP has no ongoing criminal investigation into possible election wrongdoing, saying that none of the intelligence was “actionable.” The election watchdog confirmed it had received more than 175 complaints related to possible foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Yet, much of the information remains under wraps with officials claiming that providing any further details would compromise national security and privacy rules. Perhaps that’s true, but we also know well Ottawa’s penchant for secrecy.
The reaction from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberal MPs to these concerns has been overly partisan, overly defensive and too dismissive. They have attacked those who raise concerns for being racist or Trump-like, for daring to question the election process.
That attitude suggests the government, having won the last election, isn’t serious about ensuring a full airing of the concerns. But it’s also true that the opposition parties have been keen to score political points on this file. None of that serves Canadians, left wondering what to make of the allegations and searching for some real answers amid the political accusations and murky half-answers from intelligence officials.
That now must be the challenge embraced by federal political leaders. It requires a process that provides for a better discussion than a parliamentary committee with its arbitrary time constraints on questions and answers. Opposition MPs last Thursday voted for a public inquiry. That has potential if it doesn’t dissolve into a political circus.
Getting answers will require making public secret intelligence that bureaucrats are no doubt loathe to disclose. We think the imperative to maintain faith in our electoral system and our democratic institutions trumps the secrecy argument.
The goal should be to more fully disclose the interference seen in past elections, determine what actions are merited in response, and take steps to shore up the process to better protect future votes.
Our political leaders must set aside their partisan instincts and work collectively to restore public trust in federal elections.