‘Urgently’ fix election law to prevent foreign interference in Canadian elections: Senate committee

OTTAWA — A Senate committee says the government must “urgently” amend laws to prevent foreign interference in Canadian elections, including the possible theft of confidential emails.

Current laws have loopholes that could allow foreign money and online advertising to unduly influence voters and have an impact on election results, says the Senate’s standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs in a report released Thursday.

Recommendations for changes to the Canada Elections Act come after recent reports alleged that donations from the United States fuelled some organizations active in the 2015 election campaign, and amid international attention on a U.S. Senate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“It certainly makes it more of a top-of-mind issue given what’s happening in the United States,” said committee chair Bob Runciman, a Conservative senator. “I think it’s a legitimate concern right across the Western world. Certainly we can’t ignore it. Ignore it at our peril.”

The report recommends:

• introduce criminal penalties, including seizure of foreign assets

• clarify laws to address online and social media advertising;

• lifting a six-month limitation on reporting contributions to third parties;

• conducting random audits on third parties’ expenses.

“New provisions are needed to address the many ways foreign entities can interfere with elections, including by spreading false or misleading information and by the theft and dissemination of confidential emails and other computer data,” the report says.

Liberal Sen. George Baker, deputy chair of the committee, explained wording needs to be clarified because the act only prohibits foreigners from “inducing” voters, which legal experts told the committee means you have to prove it resulted in the defeat of a candidate or government. “Really, we have no protection right now,” Baker said.

Senators also agree with a recommendation from Canada’s top election officials, in a report about the 2015 election, to add a specific offence for “creation and distribution of false candidate or party campaign communication material, including false websites or other online or social media content, with the intent to mislead electors.”

The Liberal government introduced legislation in November that does not specifically address foreign influence or rules around third-party activities.

But a review of the third-party regime is part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s January mandate letter for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, and was for previous minister Maryam Monsef.

Complaints to Elections Canada about undue influence from such groups have increased. In 2015, 114 third-party advertisers were registered with Elections Canada, more than double those registered in the 2011 election.

The Calgary Herald reported last month Elections Canada received a complaint from a Conservative MP alleging United States donations to third-party groups had been used to influence the 2015 election.

Right now, if a group receives donations from a foreign entity outside of six months plus a day from an election writ dropping, it doesn’t need to report foreign contributions. That’s a problem, argued Conservative Sen. Linda Frum. “We have fixed election dates now, so that’s not hard to figure out,” she said.

Really, we have no protection right now

Spending rules are also too vague, the committee says. Adjusted for inflation, each third-party individual or group can legally spend more than $200,000 federally and more than $4,000 per riding, based on a 37-day writ, on advertising.

But that is based on a traditional definition of advertising and doesn’t include websites, social media, polling, rallies and events, or other activities. Baker said there are concerns — and were complaints in 2015 — that groups could “completely overwhelm the issues being discussed legitimately by the candidate or the political party.”

Runciman said he believes such groups tend to favour Liberal policies and that could be why Liberals are slow to implement their promise to review them. “I’m no expert in that area and I hope it’s not colouring their judgment on this, but that may be one explanation.”

“That would be the chairman’s own opinion,” Baker said, and the committee heard no evidence that third parties benefit any particular political party. “Everybody wants to get elected, so they use whatever means available.”

He said Supreme Court decisions have favoured the right of third parties to participate in elections and that could be why the government is “treading very carefully,” but court decisions have not taken foreign money or the Internet into account and those are the two big reasons why reforms are needed.

Senators are pleading with the government to make changes “urgently” in order to make sure problems with the law are addressed before the next general election scheduled for fall 2019.

• Email: mdsmith@postmedia.com | Twitter: amariedanielles

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