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Liberals focus on safeguarding elections from cyber attacks instead of electoral reform promises

No one wants to see the next federal election hacked by sinister foreign operatives. But what about all those other promised democratic fixes?

by Kady O'Malley
Sep 20 2017, 2:29pm

Psst, Vice Canada reader: Given the seemingly endless stream of reports of foreign interference in the last US election, do you ever find yourself quietly freaking out over the possibility that Canada could come under attack by the very same sort of sinister outside forces in future?

The e-spooks at Canada’s cybersecurity agency think it could happen, according to an unclassified report they released this summer.

Meanwhile, the federal government is making a concerted effort to reassure Canadians that they’re doing everything they can to keep Canada’s electoral system safe from threats posed by sinister outside actors, from organized Russian hacks to anarchic homegrown saboteurs.

In fact, protecting the legitimacy of elections is at the top of the to-do list Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handed to Burlington rookie MP Karina Gould when he appointed her to cabinet as the minister responsible for Canada’s democratic institutions in January.

Gould is set to take centre stage for the launch of the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, a pilot project from Facebook Canada in the aftermath of revelations that a foreign group — likely connected to Russia — had plastered the social media network in advance of the US election, planting thousands of ads on white-hot button issues like equal marriage and immigration.

There’s a growing list of campaign promises and post-election commitments that seem to have been left to languish in limbo.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking preemptive steps to protect the integrity of next federal vote, even if it’s not entirely clear how vulnerable a paper-based ballot system can be to malevolent meddling.

‘Anti-democratic elements’

The problem is that, when it comes to Team Trudeau’s record on the democratic reform front, there’s a growing list of campaign promises and post-election commitments that seem to have been left to languish in limbo as the clock ticks down on his first term in office.

And no, this isn’t about to turn into yet another post-mortem on the decision to abandon the pledge to reform Canada’s voting system.

During the last campaign, Trudeau and his party were adamant that a Liberal government would take immediate action to undo the “anti-democratic elements” brought in by the Harper government under the Fair Elections Act: boosting penalties for electoral fraud, loosening the newly stringent voter ID requirements that were seen as an attempt to disenfranchise youth, indigenous communities and other voting blocs thought to be unlikely to support the Conservatives and removing the gag on the chief electoral officer in order to allow him to actually encourage those same groups to get involved in the democratic process.

True — at least initially — to his word, in late 2016, the government introduced legislation to address several of those voter access issues, as well as to restore voting rights to thousands of Canadians living abroad. That bill has been sitting in the queue for second reading ever since.

Foreign threats?

The Liberals did, it’s fair to say, put a wee bit more effort into pushing forward their bid to crack down on those so-called “cash-for-access” fundraisers that allowed lobbyists and other keeners to pay up to $1,500 a pop for the opportunity to buttonhole a minister — or even the prime minister himself — in a cozier, more exclusive environment than a typical party rally.

Brought in last May, the bill — which wouldn’t ban the practice outright, but would require such events to be publicized in advance, and the guest list posted to the party website — got its second-reading endorsement just before the House rose for the summer. It’s now, at least in theory, on the agenda at the House affairs committee.

What’s not clear, however, is just when Trudeau’s government will get around to reviewing it, or how long it will take to snake it through the parliamentary process. Politicians tend to react badly to proposed changes that might limit their ability to fill party coffers.

The new rules would also apply to certain opposition politicians — specifically party leaders and leadership candidates, — so it’s not just the Liberal Party that would be affected by the change. (Even if it was, there’s no guarantee a party will support such a move even when in power. Just ask former prime minister Jean Chretien, whose successful overhaul of what was at the time a virtually lawless political financing regime was famously described by the then-Liberal Party president as “dumb as a bag of hammers.”)

The new rules would also apply to certain opposition politicians

Meanwhile, the promises to set up an independent, nonpartisan commission to oversee the next round of leaders’ debates, impose a limit on how long an election can run and review party spending between elections are effectively missing in action.

All three items do make a cameo appearance in the latest ministerial mandate letter. But given the tightness of the timeline between now and 2019, it’s difficult to envision the government managing to get the bills already in play passed into law, let alone those that haven’t yet made the leap from the campaign platform to the drafting table.

When it comes to ensuring that Canadians continue to have faith in the democratic process, maintaining the machinery powering the electoral system is no less important than protecting the process from still theoretical outside threats.