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A man with dark hair surrounded by three men and a woman stands in front of a podium speaking. A row of Canadian flags are behind him.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill on Monday, March 6, 2023, announcing a probe into election interference. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Liberal government is in serious crisis mode on Chinese interference

A series of leaked documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have revealed the ways in which the Chinese government has attempted to tamper with Canadian elections.

This gives support to a number of allegations regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) behaviour that have been circulating for a number of years. This includes the Conservative Party of Canada’s claim that the interference cost it a number of seats in the 2021 federal election, along with allegations about the operation of illegal “police stations” used by China to gather information on the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

The story is a developing one, and many precise details remain unclear. It’s still to be determined, for example, where the leaks came from, why the information was leaked and whether it’s representative of the full scope of intelligence.

Because the leaks tend to emphasize how the federal Liberals benefited from Chinese interference, it could be a politically motivated attempt by elements within CSIS to bring down the current government.

Political implications

The leaks obviously have substantial political implications that will likely intensify as the scandal continues to develop. Both the Conservatives and NDP have called for a full public inquiry into the full picture of Beijing’s meddling.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, despite previously claiming that no further action was required, has now announced that the government will appoint a “special rapporteur” who will work with two national security committees to probe the details of the controversy.

The exact details of this investigation, including who will be appointed rapporteur, are yet to be determined. But it will certainly be immersed in partisan posturing and strategizing.

The opposition will undoubtedly attack the integrity of the process, especially given the fact that its scope is entirely determined by the very government it’s investigating. The rapporteur will reportedly ultimately determine whether a full public inquiry is necessary.

Liberals benefited?

The Liberals have a lot to lose from a continuing public focus on the topic.

The allegations not only raise questions about the integrity of Canadian democracy itself, but also the complicity of the government in not properly addressing it — and the appearance, to put it more precisely, that the Liberals deliberately underplayed, denied or buried allegations of interference because they benefited from it.

A man with dark hair gestures while he speaks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 6, 2023 about Chinese interference in Canadian elections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Available information shows that both the prime minister and his staff were briefed, on multiple occasions, about indications of Chinese interference as it was happening in both the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The governing party is in crisis mode, reeling from intelligence leaks that it did not anticipate. This is evident in how Trudeau quickly moved from an initial, reactive and ad-hoc response — effectively denying the seriousness of the reports and attacking any opponents as being racially motivated — to now succumbing to pressure for further investigations.

The New Democrats, which the Liberals rely on to stay in power, have not ruled out the idea that they could bring the public inquiry to a confidence vote. The Conservatives, who continue to poll well with Canadians, no doubt see their electoral fortunes on the horizon.

National security crisis

Yet this isn’t just about politics — it’s also a genuine and deeply concerning crisis of national security. Evidence of Chinese interference raises serious questions about the entire legitimacy of our electoral process.

A woman's hand puts a ballot into a ballot box.
A voter casts her ballot in advance polls in the 2021 federal election in Chambly, Que., in September 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The available information shows the actual way votes were counted in 2019 and 2021 remains relatively intact.

Instead, Beijing seemingly employed significant resources in personal financing and social media content to influence — if not downright manipulate — Canadian voters to advance their specific interests.

In 2019 and 2021, this involved working through informal channels to assist the campaigns of several Liberal party candidates.

As demonstrated by the American experience with Russian interference, this is the “new normal.”

The reality is that unlike in the past, there are a number of dominant world powers that are more than willing to do whatever it takes to advance their interests, including interfering with the domestic politics of other states.

Leaks necessary?

The recent leaks not only prove this is happening in Canada but, more seriously, demonstrate that Canadian security organizations are struggling to find ways to manage it as Chinese interference strategies continue to develop.

The politicization of the issue, while inevitable, isn’t helpful. But as long as the Liberal government prioritizes its electoral viability, the scandal will only intensify.

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service with trees behind it.
A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The leaks did not help the work of CSIS, but rather damages the organization’s international credibility and will likely make it more difficult for CSIS to acquire sensitive information.

Still, with an elected democratic government that has so far only sat on its hands, the leaks may have been necessary for the sake of Canadian democracy.

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