The man who wrote a report recommending a lower threshold for telling Canadians about foreign interference in elections says there’s no consensus on what that threshold should be.
Former civil servant Morris Rosenberg’s report, released on Tuesday, examined the work of the panel created by the Public Protocol on Critical Election Incidents in the 2021 election. The panel was tasked with monitoring interference in the election and tasked with informing Canadians of any incident – or group of incidents – that threatened the ability to hold free and fair elections.
Rosenberg made several recommendations to better inform Canadians about what the group considers to be of concern and called for further study on whether to inform the public about threats that do not meet this high bar.
“It’s really something that I don’t think there’s consensus in the political parties on either, if they want to keep that high threshold,” Rosenberg said in an interview Wednesday.
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The level of disclosure provided by security officials about election interference is coming under greater scrutiny after recent media reports detailing alleged Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing classified CSIS files, reported that China had worked to secure a victory for the liberal minority in the 2021 election and defeat conservative politicians seen as hostile to Beijing.
The Globe said the spy service quoted a Chinese diplomat as saying that Beijing likes Canadian political parties to fight each other, which reduces the risk of them implementing policies that do not promote democracy. China.
The newspaper also said that, according to CSIS, Chinese diplomats are initiating undeclared cash donations to campaigns, and asking business owners to hire international Chinese students and assign them to election campaigns.
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Global News reported on Feb. 24 that national security officials allegedly provided Trudeau’s party with an urgent, classified briefing in late September 2019, warning them that one of their candidates was part of a Chinese foreign interference ring.
According to sources, the candidate in question was Han Dong, then a former MPP from Ontario whom the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began tracking in June of that year.
National security officials also allege that Dong, now a sitting MP re-elected in 2021, is one of at least 11 Toronto-area constituency candidates allegedly backed by Beijing in the 2019 contest. Sources say that the service also believes that Dong is a conscious affiliate of election interference networks in China.
Responding to questions from Global News for the story, Dong denied the allegations and said Monday he would defend himself. Trudeau defended Dong on Monday, saying he was “an exceptional member of our team and that suggestions that he is somehow not loyal to Canada should not be accepted.”
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Rosenberg’s report noted that unelected officials on the panel face a tough decision about whether to tell the public about the alleged interference, because the announcement itself could affect the election.
“It is feared that this will affect people’s perception of whether the election is fair, and it may discourage voters.”
When the Public Protocol on Critical Election Incidents was created in 2019, then-Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told a parliamentary committee that the threshold for informing the public would be “very high and limited to the consideration of exceptional circumstances that could impair our ability to have a free and fair election.
But in light of recent media leaks, opposition MPs are calling for more transparency.
“Canadians should be informed if there is foreign interference. They should know immediately so they can protect themselves from any form of manipulation or intimidation,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Thursday.
NDP and Conservatives call for investigation into allegations of foreign election interference
At a House of Commons committee meeting on Thursday, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois helped pass an NDP motion calling for the launch of a “national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in the democratic system of Canada”.
The Liberal members of the committee voted against this motion.
The committee also heard testimony from the national security adviser and the head of Canada’s spy agency, both of whom suggested that an inquiry was not the best way to investigate, in part because security issues related to sharing classified information in a public place.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he knows Canadians want reassurance from independent experts.
“They want to make sure all the right questions are put to our intelligence and security agencies in a rigorous way to make sure they’re doing everything possible,” he said.
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But Trudeau dismissed the idea of holding a public inquiry, saying there were already systems in place to investigate foreign interference.
Rosenberg’s report also noted that there are growing challenges with domestic actors interfering in elections, sometimes on behalf of other countries, and warned that the landscape of electoral threats is changing.
“It is often difficult to determine whether the incidents were coordinated in the use of proxies who acted for a foreign government, or whether these are the honest opinions of Canadians,” Rosenberg said.
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Security officials have already warned against this.
“We know that China, among other countries, is trying to target elected officials at all levels of government to promote its own national interests and to encourage individuals to speak or act, if you will, as proxies on behalf of the Communist Party of China,” CSIS deputy director of operations Michelle Tessier said at a Nov. 9 meeting of a House of Commons committee.
Rosenberg said election interference can also target specific constituencies or diaspora communities, creating a question of who should be informed in cases where only part of the electorate is affected.
“It probably won’t affect the whole election, but it is something that may affect voters in that constituency, if they vote based on false information, or they may be intimidated into not voting.”
—With files by Mickey Djuric
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