OTTAWA – The Liberal government should toughen up Canada’s election law to better protect the voting process from foreign influence – and money – in time for the 2019 campaign, senators argue in a new report.
“The (Canada Elections Act) does not sufficiently protect Canadian elections from improper foreign interference,” said a report released Thursday by the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs.
“The existing regime that regulates third-party advertising requires modernization in order to better ensure transparency and electoral fairness.”
There have been growing concerns about foreign influence in the electoral process, especially after the French and U.S. elections and the investigation into alleged Russian interference to help ensure the victory of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The report was released as former FBI director James Comey appeared before the U.S. Senate intelligence committee to discuss his firing and the investigation of Russian election meddling.
It calls for clearer language barring foreign entities from inducing Canadians to vote in a particular way and for stronger criminal penalties for doing so.
The committee also wants an overhaul of the rules for third-party involvement, with Conservatives pointing the finger mainly at environmental groups that campaigned against former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2015.
The rules surrounding election advertising, which have not changed in 17 years, are out of date, the report noted.
“It excludes totally the Internet,” as well as other forms of advertising, such as robocalls, telephone calls and third parties that hire door-to-door canvassers, said Liberal Sen. George Baker, deputy chair of the committee.
“There’s a very limited definition of election advertising that allows third parties to do all sorts of things during election campaigns and not have to account for it, as far as election advertising expenses are concerned.”
The report also wants to impose random campaign audits and remove the six-month time limit on when third parties have to report contributions, to further protect against foreign election donations.
Conservative Sen. Linda Frum has put forward a private bill with a similar goal.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould confirmed she is still planning to review spending limits for third parties, as noted in her mandate letter.
“We will also create reasonable measures to apply between elections,” Gould said in a statement.
“We want to prevent foreign interference in our elections that could undermine trust in our democracy,” she added. “Our democracy belongs to Canadians.”
The Liberal government has also asked the Communications Security Establishment to look at whether the 2019 federal election is vulnerable to outside influence, particularly through cybercrime.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said that while Canada has a “resilient” cybersecurity system, it should not be taken for granted.
“We will be proposing future improvements in the Canadian system,” Goodale said Thursday, adding that other countries, including the U.S. and Britain, are doing the same.
“We live in a very interconnected world from a digital point of view and that means we are interdependent on one another and you’re only as good as your weakest link,” he said. “We need to make sure that that weakest link is as strong as it needs to be.”
Yves Cote, the commissioner of Canada elections, told the Senate committee in April that concerns about foreign money and third-party influence are serious enough that they merit the attention of Parliament.
His office said last month there were 105 complaints about third-party activities in the 2015 campaign, compared to a dozen following the 2011 election.
The report noted the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the constitutionality of limiting the spending of third parties during election campaigns. Before his political career, when he was head of the National Citizens Coalition, Harper challenged those limits on the grounds they infringed the right to freedom of expression.
Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman, the chair of the committee, said a free speech argument would likely gain little sympathy if it involved foreign influence.
“I think most Canadians would have difficulty with the free speech argument when you’re looking at foreign monies coming in to influence the selection of the government of Canada.”