Registry would prevent election meddling
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LAST week, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced the commencement of consultations on a proposed new Foreign Influence Transparency Registry. While we do not yet know what this will look like, it will likely include elements of similar registries in other Five Eyes alliance countries, including Australia, which require those advocating for a foreign state to register their activities or face the prospect of fines or jail time.
A foreign influence registry would be a useful tool for both detecting and preventing the sort of foreign interference in Canadian elections that is currently dominating news in this country.
For that reason, the expectation is both China and other authoritarian foreign adversaries will act either to prevent or water down the proposed registry.
Indeed, advocate Gloria Fung, co-ordinator of the Canadian Coalition for a Foreign Influence Registry, reports she has already witnessed a “very well-orchestrated and co-ordinated effort” to hijack the proposed registry. One way this is taking place is through the stoking of fears that the registry will unfairly target Chinese Canadians and lead to anti-Asian racism.
Yuen Pau Woo, a senator from British Columbia appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, took to Twitter to compare any proposed registry to the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act (commonly called the Chinese Exclusion Act), which, from 1923 to 1947, made it almost impossible for people of Chinese ancestry to enter Canada.
“How,” Senator Woo wondered, “can we prevent this registry from becoming a modern form of Chinese exclusion?”
It boggles the mind that anyone would compare an act designed to limit immigration on the basis of ethnicity with a proposed registry that would help Canada monitor those working on behalf of foreign states.
Canadians, now more than ever, are committed to addressing historical wrongs and ensuring they are not repeated. But that is not at all inconsistent with the government working to protect the country’s national interests against foreign adversaries.
Nevertheless, Woo’s comments may stir up concern among Chinese Canadians who rightly see the Exclusion Act as an odious exercise of state power in the history of their families. Mendicino and Trade Minister Mary Ng likely fanned these flames by publicly worrying that a registry could unfairly target Canadians of Chinese origin.
Indeed, we have an obligation to do a better job of protecting Chinese Canadians from the long reach of the CCP. The Chinese diaspora has long been a target for infiltration and harassment. Indeed, we have recently learned of the existence of sinister covert “police stations” set up by the Chinese government within Canada to threaten and intimidate Chinese Canadians.
A registry with teeth would help to protect Chinese Canadians from precisely this sort of activity.
The question of how to limit or prevent foreign interference in Canadian elections has become even more pressing as we have learned more about its consequences in recent elections.
An independent analysis of votes in the 2021 election within seats where Chinese interference has been a concern demonstrates that turnout for Conservative candidates dropped while the vote share of their Liberal challengers did not substantially increase. This outcome — suppression of the Conservative vote — is precisely what one would expect to find in the case of the alleged negative disinformation campaigns waged against Conservative candidates in ridings with high proportions of Chinese Canadians.
These disinformation campaigns, broadcast over apps such as WeChat that are popular with Chinese Canadians, were alleged to have been run by foreign interference networks unhappy with Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s hawkish stance on China.
Even as the Conservatives added seats in 2021 under O’Toole, the Conservative vote share in three key seats mysteriously plummeted. In Markham-Stouffville, the CPC incumbent dropped 7,174 votes from the 2019 election. In Richmond Centre, the Tories lost 6,369. And in Steveston Richmond West, the Tories dropped 4,412 votes. In all three seats, the Liberals came nowhere near claiming those votes.
All three of these seats had Conservative incumbent MPs prior to 2021, and all saw their vote shares suppressed in that election.
In Richmond Centre, for example, the Conservative MP and former minister, Alice Wong, had represented the seat for more than a decade. Wong was well regarded as both an effective voice for her constituency and for Chinese Canadians within the former Conservative government. Over the course of four successful election campaigns, she had never received less than 40 per cent of the local votes cast.
That is, until 2021.
Flipping three seats would not have changed the overall outcome of the 2021 election. But no serious democracy can tolerate foreign meddling in its elections to even this degree.
A foreign influence registry would help to prevent that from happening, and would help protect vulnerable Canadians from the long reach of our foreign adversaries.
Royce Koop is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy.