Officials split on when to report interference allegations to public, Rosenberg says

OTTAWA — The man who wrote a report that recommends a lower threshold for notifying Canadians about foreign interference in elections says there's no consensus about what that threshold should be.

Former civil servant Morris Rosenberg's report, released on Tuesday, looked into the work of the panel created by the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol during the 2021 election. The panel was tasked with monitoring interference in the election and instructed to inform Canadians about any incident — or group of incidents — that threatened the ability to hold a free and fair election.

Rosenberg made several recommendations about better informing Canadians on what the panel considered to be cause for concern and urged further study on whether to inform the public about threats that do not meet that high bar.

"This is really something that I don't think there's a consensus in the political parties either about this, whether they want to keep that high threshold," Rosenberg said in an interview Wednesday.

The level of disclosure provided by security officials about election meddling is under more scrutiny after recent media reports detailing alleged interference by China in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing classified CSIS records, reported that China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in the 2021 election and to defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

The Globe said the spy service quoted one Chinese diplomat as saying Beijing likes it when Canadian political parties are fighting with each other, lowering the risk they will implement policies that do not favour China.

The newspaper also said that, according to CSIS, Chinese diplomats are behind undeclared cash donations to campaigns, and have business owners hire international Chinese students and assign them to volunteer in election campaigns.

A Global News report cited anonymous sources alleging CSIS urged senior Liberal party staff to rescind Han Dong's nomination in a Toronto riding in 2019 due to alleged interference, but that Trudeau approved his candidacy.

Dong, who won the riding for the Liberals in 2019 and 2021, said his nomination and campaign teams have found no indication of irregularities or compliance issues regarding his candidacy or election.

Rosenberg's report noted that unelected public officials on the panel are faced with a difficult decision about whether to tell the public about alleged interference, as the announcement itself could affect the election.

"There's a concern that it could affect people's perception on whether the election is fair, and it may turn voters off."

When the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol was created in 2019, then-minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould told a parliamentary committee the threshold for informing the public would be "very high and limited to addressing exceptional circumstances that could impair our ability to have a free and fair election."

But in light of the recent media leaks, opposition MPs are calling for more transparency.

"Canadians should be made aware if there is foreign interference. They should know immediately so that they can protect themselves against any form of manipulation or intimidation," said Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on Thursday.

At a House of Commons committee meeting Thursday, the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois helped pass an NDP motion to call for the launch of a "national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system."

Liberal MPs on the committee voted against that motion.

The committee also heard testimony from the national security adviser and the head of Canada's spy agency, who both suggested an inquiry was not the best venue to investigate, in part because of security concerns over sharing classified information in a public setting.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Friday he knows Canadians want reassurance from independent experts.

"They want to make sure that all the right questions are being posed of our intelligence and security agencies in a rigorous way to make sure they're doing everything possible," he said.

But Trudeau brushed aside the notion of holding a public inquiry, saying there were already systems in place to investigate foreign interference.

Rosenberg's report also noted there are growing challenges with domestic actors interfering in elections, sometimes on behalf of other countries, and warned the landscape of election threats is changing.

"It's often difficult to determine whether the incidents were co-ordinated in the use of proxies that were acting for a foreign government, or whether they are the honestly held views of Canadians," Rosenberg said.

Security officials have warned of this before.

"We know that China, among other countries, tries to target elected officials at all levels of government to promote its own national interests and to encourage individuals to speak or act, if you will, as proxies on behalf of the Communist Party of China," said Michelle Tessier, CSIS deputy director of operations, at a Nov. 9 meeting of a House of Commons committee.

Rosenberg said election interference can also target specific ridings or diaspora communities, creating a question of who should be notified in instances when only a portion of the electorate is being affected.

"It's not going to affect the whole election, probably, but it is something that may affect those voters in that riding, any they may vote based on false information, or they may be intimidated into not voting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2023.

— With files from Mickey Djuric

David Fraser, The Canadian Press