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From Electoral Reform to Protecting the Electoral Process

From Electoral Reform to Protecting the Electoral Process

Nobody knows Ottawa better than Paul Wells, the current national affairs columnist at the Toronto Star and the former political editor of Maclean’s magazine. In more than two decades on the Hill, he has covered seven federal elections, three prime ministers and a big piece of the nation’s history. Fresh, funny and authoritative, Wells speaks in both official languages on all of the matters of the day, from Canada’s position in the global economy, to the inside scoop on what’s really happening inside the Parliament buildings and beyond. Here, Paul writes on the new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould:

Maybe the Liberals’ humiliating retreat on electoral reform wasn’t the only important news in Karina Gould’s portfolio this week.

Gould is the new Minister of Democratic Institutions, a Burlington MP who was brought in to clean up the mess her government had already made on electoral reform.

It’s pretty obvious the retreat came because Canadians were headed in a direction Justin Trudeau didn’t want to go — toward proportional-representation models that could force the Liberals to share power with other parties, or watch other parties team up against them.

And so, eight weeks after Trudeau told this newspaper’s editorial board that “Canadians elect governments to do hard things and don’t expect us to throw up our hands when things are a little difficult,” Trudeau threw up his hands. The prime minister richly deserves the blame he’s getting.

It’s fair for people to wonder what Gould, the rookie minister, will do with her time, now that she has no major reform project to pilot. But the answer may be “a lot.”

Trudeau’s “mandate letter” to Gould was released on Wednesday. The first item in the letter is a big one. “In collaboration with the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness” — that’s Harjit Sajjan and Ralph Goodale — Gould is to “lead the Government of Canada’s efforts to defend the Canadian electoral process from cyber threats.”

Trudeau’s instructions to Gould seem to confirm that — whatever Donald Trump thinks about how he won last November’s presidential election — Trudeau shares the conclusion of Barack Obama and armies of intelligence analysts that Vladimir Putin’s Russian government was a key player in the outcome.

That’s the conclusion three U.S. intelligence agencies — the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency — reached in a January report. While they properly refrained from guessing whether Putin’s influence determined the outcome, the agencies think he tried: “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary (Hillary) Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him.”

And the agencies also had this warning for governments outside the U.S.: “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.”

America’s European allies are not treating this threat as hypothetical. France and Germany have national elections this year. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defence minister, told a newspaper in January that the country is under near-constant cyberattack and that he anticipated attempts to influence the country’s elections. “The risk which weighs upon our democratic life is real,” he said.

In Germany, Thomas Oppermann, caucus chair for the Social Democratic Party, said “Targeted propaganda and hacker attacks from abroad will be a major challenge for the German election campaign.”

If Clinton were a hacking target, and Angela Merkel is assumed to be one, it’s not that surprising that Canada’s Liberals might think they could be, too. Trudeau is sometimes mentioned with Merkel as a lonely standard-bearer for the free-trading, open-to-immigrants policies that assorted nationalist and populist movements across the West are threatening. Trudeau’s new foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, is such a thorn in Moscow’s side that she is currently banned from visiting Russia.

But it’s not clear which opposing force Putin would seek to reinforce with attacks against the Trudeau Liberals. Under Stephen Harper the Conservatives were even more critical of Putin than the Liberals have been. Helping the NDP in a future election would be a bit of a stretch, and perhaps not even helpful to Russia if it worked: as Harper said in a recent speech in New Delhi, Canada’s political parties are essentially unanimous in backing Ukraine’s pro-Western government against Putin. At any rate, Trudeau’s letter to Gould makes it clear that any defence against hacking should be made available to all political parties.

In a telephone interview, Scott Jones, deputy chief of information-technology security at the Canadian Security Establishment, said his aim is to bulk up the security of Canada’s electoral system against any threat. “I don’t think we’re looking at any state or any entity specifically. We’re in a new world,” Jones said. “How do we work to make sure we have a secure, open and transparent electoral process?”

Gould’s mandate letter tells her to get a report on threats and remedies from the CSE and to make that report public. Jones said he wants the report to be “comprehensive” and that he wants to figure out the size of the task before him before he even begins talking about delivery dates. This effort, spread across three government departments and a major security agency, looks like a lot more than window dressing. “We’re in a whole new world,” Jones said.

Paul Wells/Toronto Star/February, 2017