Why Canadian government transparency on foreign interference is essential

Democracy rests, above all, on trust. We trust our leaders to act in our interests. We trust our democratic institutions to hold them to account when they fail to do so. We trust our media to report on those activities, and we trust our fellow citizens to speak and act in good faith.

In short, trust is the fundamental coin of the realm in democracies, and Canadians are experiencing a worsening crisis of it. Left unchecked, such mistrust will undermine the legitimacy of Canada’s democratic institutions.

The latest hit to that trust came in the form of the recent report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. It alleges that one or more Canadian MPs in recent years have “wittingly” co-operated with foreign powers to influence Canadian politics and share confidential information.



In other words, they were spying. Other politicians unwittingly received financial and other support as well.

Canadian citizens more broadly, especially members of diaspora communities, have been targets of what’s known as transnational repression, with foreign governments using a variety of tactics to coerce support for their regimes. This allegation is not new, but the report amplifies previous research on the subject.

Similarly concerning, the report alleges that journalists and media outlets have also come under pressure to do the bidding of foreign governments, willingly or unwillingly.

Scant details

Despite these revelations, there’s nothing close to a full picture of the situation.

Canadians don’t know the names of the individuals involved, or even the full range of countries. While the report concluded that China and Russia were the foremost sources of threat, it also noted that “other states, including India, (REDACTED), Pakistan and Iran engaged in foreign interference activities.”

The decision to withhold a country’s name, on its face, seems indefensible. At a minimum, it gives further reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the government; more skeptical readers may simply conclude that the foreign influence must be working well if the government can’t even name the country undertaking it.

In short, Canadians were handed lots of reasons to be very worried, and none to be reassured.

The ministerial response was effectively “trust us, we’ll look into it internally.” When asked in the House of Commons whether any current cabinet ministers were named in the report, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc declined to answer.

These are not tenable positions. They are pushing Canada towards a crisis of trust.

Parallels to financial crisis

Consider the analogy of the 2007-08 credit crisis, another crisis of trust.

In part, the financial crisis occurred when financial entities acquired bad debt. Banks and other institutions, not knowing who to trust, stopped trusting anyone and stopped loaning money.

Without access to credit, the entire economy was at risk of grinding to a halt and the situation continued until governments stepped in with measures to restore liquidity — and trust.

Our current situation is analogous. Voters, not knowing who to trust, may end up trusting no one.

So what do trust-restoring measures look like in this case? They begin with transparency, followed by accountability.

Such an approach will carry costs, to be sure. Intelligence work is not the same as a court of law. Governments acting on intelligence reports must often proceed on information that does not clearly meet the threshold of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Some activities may be illegitimate without being demonstrably illegal in a manner that would satisfy a court. What’s more, the information used to draw conclusions about foreign interference may be top-secret.

It won’t be easy for MPs challenged to refute the allegations, a fate recently endured by independent MP Han Dong, who continues to grapple with allegations that he benefited from Chinese government assistance and provided inappropriate advice to a member of the Chinese consulate.

Transparency is key

Despite such costs, transparency is now necessary to begin the work of restoring the trust Canadians have in their politicians, their political parties, and the institutions that ostensibly keep us safe. To do nothing, or simply wait and hope the RCMP cleans things up via prosecution, would be even more costly, and suggest that Canada’s governing institutions are not up to the task of governing themselves, let alone the country.

Political parties have many tools at their disposal to grapple with various situations of lost trust. Indeed, there is a long tradition of Canadian parties and leaders sidelining or even expelling caucus members and candidates for a range of reasons, including some that lack publicized evidence of wrongdoing.

When confidence is lost in an individual MP — just like when it’s lost in government as a whole — parties in a parliamentary democracy like Canada’s have both the ability and the obligation to act quickly and decisively to restore that lost trust.

Transparency will also bring some relief to Canadians currently living under an undeserved cloud of doubt, both in parliament and in the broader community. Foreign governments have done diaspora communities a tremendous disservice in trying to use them as avenues of influence, often against their will. As long as we lack transparency, entire communities of Canadians of varied descent will continue to face suspicion, mistrust, and discrimination from Canadians. It will be a long road back, but transparency is a crucial first step.

Simply put, if Canadian leaders want the public to trust them, they need to trust citizens with the foreign interference information. If the government doesn’t provide it, voters will eventually choose someone else to lead, and trust in Canadian institutions will continue to erode.The Conversation

Stewart Prest is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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