COMMENTARY: Canada’s plan to protect elections suffers from some flaws
Canada’s government has a plan to protect the integrity of our next federal election from foreign interference.
It’s a real problem. Many of our allies have already seen such interference already. Canada will absolutely be targeted — if we’re at each other’s throats at home, we’re less effective abroad. That suits the interests of many nations out there. A lot of the concern is focused on Russia these days, but given the problems China is causing, we can’t forget about them, either.
So good. We have a plan. A plan is better than no plan. But at the risk of raining on Ottawa’s parade, someone should perhaps point out that the plan … isn’t a great plan.
Here’s what it actually is: a non-political group of senior Canadian government officials, all from files touching on foreign affairs and national security, will form a five-person committee to monitor any attempts from outside our borders to sway our elections. The committee will comprise the clerk of the Privy Council, the government’s national security adviser, and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety and global affairs.
These are non-partisan positions. A deputy minister is a senior civil servant charged with the day-to-day operations of a ministry; the minister is the political appointee who offers direction in line with the government’s chosen agenda. As the election approaches, these committee members will be advised by our national security agencies, which will have access to information collected by our own assets and provided by our allies. In the event of a foreign effort to influence a Canadian election, the committee will be tasked with determining how to respond, and that could include, in serious cases, informing the public about what has been discovered.
You can see what the government is trying to do there — to create a non-partisan group that Canadians will trust. It’s the right idea, but it won’t work.
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One problem is simply that most Canadians don’t have the slightest clue what a deputy minister is or does. They’ll trust the government official delivering warnings as much as they trust the government itself. If a hostile power is using fake news, social media bots and other forms of propaganda to convince Canadians (or at least a big chunk of them) that you can’t trust the government, a bunch of people from that very same government assuring us that things are fine won’t work. The louder the government officials try to convince Canadians that what they’re being told is bogus, the more convinced some of us will be that the government is hiding something.
The Liberals had the right instinct in going to non-partisan officials, but the problem is, this is only going to work if all Canadians suddenly also pass a civics lesson on how our government is actually structured. In the midst of a heated election campaign, a strategy that hinges on having to explain to someone what a deputy minister is and does is not going to be hugely successful.
There’s another problem. It will be up to the committee to determine when a foreign threat is serious enough to respond to, and how to respond. Again, that makes sense — you can’t lose your mind and sound battle stations every time a Russian click farm starts tweeting memes about the latest Trudeau flub. But there is no objective standard of when something becomes a big enough problem to report. It’s always going to come down to judgment, and the committee will be damned if they do or damned if they don’t. When they sound an alarm, they won’t be believed. When they don’t, they’ll be accused of laziness, naïveté or, worse, complicity.
In theory, you could probably partially mitigate that by adopting a policy of 100 per cent openness and just publishing absolutely everything about the committee’s work. There are two problems with that: a lot of the information that’s shared with the committee will be sensitive, if not outright classified. That’s a problem. The other problem is a bit more fundamental: Canadian governments, even non-partisan elements of it, are absolutely terrible at transparency. Perhaps you’ve read the recent reporting by Postmedia showing that the Canadian military, a non-partisan institution, wasn’t exactly forthcoming with documents it was legally compelled to release regarding the ongoing trial of Royal Canadian Navy Vice Adm. Mark Norman. See what I mean?
But I think there’s a deeper, more fundamental failure in this plan. Canada’s major political parties probably simply aren’t mature enough to cope with a determined, clever foreign attack on our elections. Canada’s history has simply never forced us to get serious about national security, and our entire political culture is immature and underdeveloped. The military, national intelligence, spying, data gathering … there is very little multi-partisan consensus on these critical issues of national policy. That’s bad enough. What’s worse, to the extent that they’re discussed at all, they’re mainly just used as partisan cudgels to beat the other guys with. Actually addressing the gaping holes in our national security posture isn’t the priority of any of our political parties. National security policy is just partisan posturing by other means.
That’s why our veterans continue to lack a decent standard of care. That’s why our military procurement is such an absolute disgrace. That’s why we’ve long neglected key parts of our intelligence gathering and counter-intelligence capabilities. It’s why, to this day, we have barely begun to develop cyberwarfare capabilities, even though our economy absolutely depends on digital infrastructure. Our political culture simply isn’t mature enough to recognize that there are truly national issues that transcend partisan politics. We only got around to establishing multi-party parliamentary oversight of our national intelligence operations 15 months ago. We’ve been debating Bill C-59, which would greatly increase Canada’s abilities to hold its own in a cyber war, for even longer, but it’s nowhere near to being passed, and might well die on the order sheet when the next election rolls around. It’s nice that we have a plan to protect our elections, but we have a bill to protect everything else — and we haven’t passed it.
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I truly wish I believed that, in the face of a determined foreign effort to interfere with our elections, our politicians, of any political persuasion, would pull together to face the threat in unity, as Canadians first. But I don’t — and if you spend much time looking at our political culture, you probably don’t, either. We simply aren’t ready for this, not because we’re outgunned abroad, but because we’re consumed by petty battles at home.
The irony, of course, is that leaves us doubly vulnerable. These divisions will not only be why we struggle to respond to a determined attack, they’re probably exactly what will be attacked in the first place.
All of this sets aside entirely pedestrian concerns: budgets, staffing, protocols, chains of command, resources and the like. There may well be pitfalls there. But the main challenge to this plan is simply how unseriously we take ourselves and our own national interests. It’s not that I fault the government for trying, per se. It’s just that we might need a five-person non-partisan panel tasked with forcing Canadians, from the elected officials on down, to grow the hell up before the electoral integrity panel can do much good.
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