At a recent conference sponsored by the venerable Institute of Public Administration in Canada (IPAC), participants in the lead panel discussed “Politics: A Return to Civility, What Would it Take?”
Strikingly, there was no dissent whatsoever among the three panelists and the moderator, former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay, as to whether or not there actually is a lack of civility in political discourse in Canada. For all of them this was a given.
Their unanimity was even more striking since the four distinguished participants were all former politicians and they represented all the major political parties. Indeed, each of them spent some time in their opening remarks reminiscing about their experience in politics and how different it was from the current reality. Several provided examples of how their relationship with their counterparts in other parties had not only been civil but often collegial, cooperative and constructive. And they all agreed those days are long gone.
In their view Parliament has become a leaner, meaner place, and politics has become a blood sport, heavily influenced by populist rhetoric, misinformation and deliberate disinformation. It is true that political spin has long been a given in politics, but the intentional use of misdirection and personal insult is a relatively new phenomenon that many argue has crossed a line, becoming unacceptable behaviour that threatens citizens’ faith in the very institutions of democratic governance.
In this hyperpartisan environment, cooperation and compromise are virtually impossible. Like many of those who oppose public health vaccination measures, many Members of Parliament no longer see their counterparts in other parties as opponents but as enemies, whose opinions are no longer simply different but wrong. In this context, every policy proposal put forward by a government is viewed through the distorted lens of ideology and electoral advantage, rather than on the evidence or its relative merits. And populist leaders exacerbate the problem by playing to their base, regardless of the cost, with little or no consideration for the public good or the national interest. As a result the traditional “come, let us reason together” approach, and the constructive criticism expected of opposition parties in Westminster model parliaments, has been replaced by vehement knee-jerk opposition, frequently with blatant disregard for the facts.
This unfortunate transformation is hardly unique to Canada. Concerns over the impact of disinformation on democratic systems internationally have become so serious that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently released a report on the issue at the request of the General Assembly.[i] But while disinformation has been a common problem plaguing western liberal democracies for some time, its presence in Canadian politics is more recent, driven primarily by events south of the border during the Trump era, and the consequences are not well understood by ordinary Canadians.
The hyperpartisan approach driving this trend was very much in evidence when Official Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre called a press conference for the ostensible purpose of responding to the tabling of the Rouleau Report, the long-awaited assessment of the Trudeau government’s use of the Emergencies Act during the occupation of Ottawa by the Trucker’s Convoy. The report concluded that the government’s decision to invoke the act was justified. But rather than address the findings, and disagree with them if he chose, Poilievre ignored the report entirely and instead spent all of his time blaming the prime minister for having caused the Convoy protest in the first place. Mr Trudeau, he declared, had provoked people into this action by “sowing division” in society and by allowing inflation and the cost of living to soar. The fact that Poilievre had actually supported the illegal convoy, or that he was the one sowing division, (while inflation and the cost of living only increased long after the convoy left Ottawa), were apparently irrelevant if inconvenient facts. Meanwhile others in his party were busy trying to demonstrate that Justice Rouleau himself was the problem, by attempting to prove (incorrectly) that he is somehow related to the prime minister.
As this case demonstrates, much of this new fact-free brand of criticism levelled by politicians has also become dangerously personal, both on social media and in real life. Only a short time earlier one of Poilievre’s Conservative MPs rose in the House to repeat her bizarre accusation that the prime minister fit the Oxford Dictionary definition of a dictator, namely “A ruler with total power over a country, especially one who has gained it using force.”[ii] While expert commentators such as University of Lethbridge political scientist Trevor Harrison warned that such rhetoric will only “fan the flames” of populist discontent, neither Poilievre nor any of his front benchers rebuked Alberta MP Rachel Thomas for her comments, and several other Conservative MPs actually piled on with similar accusations during Question Period. (Given the appalling ignorance of the political process demonstrated by convoy organizers who attempted to float a so-called memorandum of understanding between themselves, the governor general and the Senate, we can safely assume that this ‘dictator’ accusation will play a prominent role in social media accounts attacking the prime minister for the foreseeable future.)
Interestingly, the sole voice in the Conservative wilderness that chastised Thomas was that of another female MP, Conservative Michelle Rempel Garner. Ms Garner issued the seemingly self-evident caution that words matter and politicians should choose them carefully. This warning was not heeded by Garner’s colleague, Conservative MP Michael Cooper. At a parliamentary committee hearing where Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was appearing as a witness, Cooper mocked her statement that she had issued a strong rebuke to her Chinese counterpart at a recent G20 meeting, condemning alleged interference in Canada’s domestic affairs. Demonstrating the lack of respect and civility that has become the norm in the legislature these days, Cooper asked the minister if she thought that “staring into the eyes” of the diplomat and “talking tough” would make a difference. [iii]
Not surprisingly, this lack of respect for officials and fellow politicians in parliament is giving free rein to ordinary citizens with grievances to behave badly. As all those who witnessed the verbal assault on Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland by a disgruntled conspiracy theorist in Alberta could attest, women are increasingly bearing the brunt of such populist discontent. As countless female politicians have reported, similar attacks directed towards them have increased dramatically in the past few years, to the point where a career in politics will soon become something most women will avoid at all costs. [iv]
Indeed, numerous public opinion polls have demonstrated a growing lack of respect by ordinary Canadians for public office holders at all levels, and a precipitously declining level of interest by citizens – both male and female — in seeking such offices, or even in following politics closely. As University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley noted, it is crucial that all politicians counteract misinformation and unacceptable behaviour when they come across it, if Canada’s political culture and democratic values are to remain strong. He pointed to the excellent example set by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, when he categorically rejected the claim of one of his own supporters that his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, was “an Arab” and as such could not be trusted. [v]
It is noteworthy, then, that neither of the two most prominent populist leaders in Canada today, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta United Conservative premier Danielle Smith, immediately condemned the attack on Freeland, although many other federal and provincial politicians did so.[vi] When forced to respond to media questions about the incident, Poilievre eventually referred to it in one word as “unacceptable” and then spent the rest of the time describing incidents in which he and has family had been subject to abuse. [vii]
Which brings us to his hyperpartisan approach to the issue of alleged Chinese intervention in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Here again, the Leader of the Official Opposition has led the charge in demonstrating a lack of respect for fellow politicians and for facts. Not content with unfairly accusing the prime minister of having failed to take action in a timely fashion, (see the lengthy list of government initiatives since 2017 on this subject, appended at the end of this article) Mr. Poilievre sank to a new low with his claim in another press conference that the prime minister is actually “acting against Canada’s interests and in favour of a foreign dictatorship’s interests.”[viii]
Poilievre has doubled down on his personal attacks with his decision to criticize the appointment of former Governor General David Johnston as the special rapporteur charged by the government with examining all of the existing reports and expert testimony to provide recommendations for further action, including whether a public inquiry is advisable or necessary. Poilievre had already made it clear that no one selected for the post would be satisfactory to him. “He’ll pick another Liberal establishment insider”, Poilievre thundered. [ix] Johnston, Poilievre has claimed, is unacceptable because he too is a Liberal hack and close personal friend of the prime minister.
Amazingly, Poilievre offered this critique despite the fact that Johnston, (widely viewed as a man of unimpeachable integrity whose credentials also include law degrees and more than a decade serving as president of a major Canadian university), was appointed Governor General by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who also re-appointed him to that post. Those appointments, in turn, were motivated by Johnston’s competent handling of a difficult earlier task Harper had assigned him, namely, cleaning up after the Mulroney/Schreiber influence peddling scandal. Specifically, Johnston recommended against holding a public inquiry into the affair, as the opposition Liberals had been demanding. According to one of his aides, Harper was so pleased with Johnston’s work on that file that he declared “Whatever we are paying this guy it’s not enough.” That Poilievre would nevertheless feel free to attack the reputation of someone with such positive ties to the previous Conservative government speaks volumes about his lack of concern for anything except immediate political advantage.
Poilievre has also done much to damage Canadians’ faith in the professionalism and expertise of the merit-based non-partisan public service and its various institutions, many of whom he has regularly undermined with disparaging remarks if he does not like their message. During this latest hot button issue of alleged Chinese government interference in federal elections, for example, he has used this approach to attempt to discredit several senior public servants, including deputy ministers and heads of various national security agencies, primarily by claiming that they are either Liberal hacks or appointees, or have a Liberal bias, and are not really independent because they ultimately report to the government. Interestingly, former Conservative senator Vern White, who served for several years on one of those committees, immediately dismissed Poilievre’s comments as patently false. [x] (Since the impartial and expert advice of a professional public service is crucial to the effective functioning of any elected government, including presumably one potentially led by Mr. Poilievre, this full frontal assault on the institution may prove to be little short of suicidal.)
One glaring example of this tactic of shooting the messenger is Poilievre’s assault on the credibility of the members of the independent expert committee established by the Liberal government in 2019 for the very purpose of ensuring federal elections are free and fair, whose mandate specifically requires members to work closely with national security agencies to detect foreign interference. After both the 2019 and 2021 federal general elections the Protocol panel reported that while foreign inference attempts existed, the elections unfolded with integrity and the outcomes were not affected.
Once again, rather than address the contents of the reports Poilievre has attempted to discredit the authors — a panel of four senior deputy ministers, chaired by highly regarded former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs Morris Rosenberg — by describing them as Liberal appointees, even though he must know this is not the case. Worse still, he has impugned the reputation of Mr. Rosenberg by suggesting that he was potentially complicit in the Chinese government’s interference attempts being examined in the report because he had served as president of the Trudeau Foundation, a non-partisan, not-for-profit charity which received a contribution from a Chinese businessman. This misleading and quite possibly libelous accusation has even been posted on the Conservative Party website. “Morris Rosenberg, who accepted $200,000 in donations from a Beijing Communist Government (CCP) official, handpicked by Trudeau government to write report on election interference.” [xi]
Similar tactics were used by the Conservative leader and members of his caucus sitting on a parliamentary committee examining the issue. The opinions and statements of National Security Adviser and former deputy minister of Defence Jody Thomas, Foreign Affairs associate deputy minister Cindy Termorshuizen, and Public Safety deputy minister Shawn Tupper, along with CSIS Director David Vigneault, were disparaged, and criticized for being uncooperative or “hiding something” after their consistent declarations that the integrity of the two elections was not compromised, and that the RCMP have not launched investigations into alleged interference because there was insufficient evidence. Nor did those MPs accept the witnesses’ various statements that some of the “information” reported in media accounts was false and that they could not discuss many media claims in detail because they themselves are bound by the national security legislation. As Thomas indicated, the opposition’s calls for a public inquiry could well prove counterproductive by revealing to foreign actors what actions the government has taken and, in any event, many of the individuals the MPs would like to call as witnesses would be unable to respond to questions in a public forum. Mr. Vigneault, meanwhile, stressed that intelligence information is often partial and should not be considered fact, while others noted that the “intelligence” in the case of Weapons of Mass Destruction had been completely erroneous. [xii]
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the participants in the IPAC conference panel also spent considerable time discussing the growing negative role of the media in aiding and abetting this toxic political environment. Their views were shared by members of a panel organized by Massey College recently on “The Ethics of Spin”. Those panelists, including former CBC Ombudsperson Esther Enkin, blamed the mainstream media’s increasing lack of balance and moderation – once the traditional hallmarks of good journalism – on the severe financial constraints they face, (which has resulted in cutbacks to the number and calibre of journalists employed), and to the intense pressure imposed on those remaining journalists to provide input at lightning speed 24/7. Both sets of panelists also pointed to the huge competition that mainstream media now face from alternative social media, with their glaring lack of civility and abundance of misinformation and deliberate disinformation. As panelist David Sloly noted, social media also reward the most extreme views and emotional behaviour.
While Canada has not yet experienced the blatant promotion of falsehoods by the media – a reality laid bare in the United States through a lawsuit against alternative media giant Fox News[xiii] – the Canadian situation nevertheless warrants examination. Certainly the feeding frenzy exhibited by opposition politicians over the various allegations of Chinese election interference has been mirrored in the wording and bias of numerous media reports on the issue. In this regard it is worth noting that this widespread coverage has taken place despite the fact that only one news outlet, the Globe and Mail, has actually seen the purported classified documents. Moreover the individual or individuals who have leaked these documents have been granted anonymity, which is hardly surprising since they are guilty of breaching the National Security Information Act. This in turn means that we have no idea what has motivated the leakers to take this action. Nor do we have any idea whether these documents are drafts or completed versions, and whether they have been taken out of context or specifically selected to cast doubt on the actions of the Liberal government.
Clearly the timing of the leaks could hardly have been more opportune for the guilty parties, which leads again to questions about their motive. Within days of the widespread coverage of Chinese surveillance balloons, and also in the wake of recent reports of Chinese “police stations” in Canadian cities, (to which the government and the RCMP responded), the question of Chinese attempts to interfere in federal elections suddenly (re-)emerged. This is particularly significant since this was not a new issue, especially to the media, in the sense that it had been raised in 2017 in the context of accusations of “foreign” interference in internal Canadian affairs generally, which at the time included not merely Chinese but also Russian and Iranian actors. Yet this time the hysterical response of the media as well as the opposition would undoubtedly lead most readers to believe this is an entirely new and unexpected development.
Even more egregious is the fact that the preponderance of media coverage of this saga has been neither neutral nor balanced. Quite the opposite, it has been overwhelmingly biased and often inaccurate. Take, for example, an article suggesting that the Trudeau government’s behaviour on this file could be reasonably compared with the response of American governments to the Pentagon Papers or Snowden affairs, both of which involved matters of national security.[xiv] Yet in both of those cases it was the deliberate, illegal and often unconstitutional actions of the American government that were exposed, not a government’s allegedly insufficient response to the alleged actions of others based on problematic evidence.
Equally significant in both American cases is the fact that the individuals responsible for breaching national security, regardless of their stated good intentions, have been severely punished. Yet in this case the prime minister – who has been repeatedly accused by critics of not paying enough attention to national security concerns – is simultaneously being widely chastised for asking that the guilty individual responsible for the national security leaks be identified.
Similarly the media coverage of the government’s response to criticism of its record on this issue is highly selective, to say the least. For example, the prime minister’s consistent efforts to outline the many actions his government has taken, long before the leaked documents surfaced, have been largely ignored. Little of this information has been reported and even less has been explained, especially within the context of national security. Yet the role of the media is precisely to educate readers.
In one case, the list of the many remedial measures the government has already taken to protect electoral integrity, and indeed to prevent foreign interference in society generally, was actually dismissed as irrelevant. That article blithely stated, “In fact, the first 10 minutes of Mr. Trudeau’s news conference was an exercise in running over old news about what the government has done in the past about foreign interference, or national security, or oversight of national security, before getting to the appointment to come of an unnamed person”[xv] as a special rapporteur. Old news to the media, perhaps, but not to Canadians, who are being short-changed in terms of relevant information on which to base their opinions.
In addition the opinions of those calling for a public inquiry or further government action, such as retired Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, are routinely given front page headlines while those arguing that such an inquiry is not in the country’s best interests, such as former CSIS Director Ward Elcock, are buried in the inner pages if they are reported at all. Elcock’s highly informative CBC interview on March 8,[xvi] is a case in point. In it he described some of Poilievre’s claims as “silly”, rejected the argument that NSICOP was not independent, pointed out that the whole subject was “not news” and stated that a prime minister would not normally have seen the briefing notes being discussed in the media. He also suggested that the motivation for the leaks was political advantage and highly unlikely to have come from inside intelligence agencies. Yet this arguably crucial information received almost no additional coverage.
Elcock’s views were strongly supported by Jessica Davis, a former intelligence analyst for the Canadian government and current head of Insight Threat Intelligence. She stressed that there was no way to know whether the documents being reported were part of a “finished intelligence assessment” but did say it was likely the leaks were selective and designed to embarrass the government. “This is really sensitive information…and there’s a hubris to people who selectively leak this sort of thing. They often assume they know best about what should be in the public domain, and are overly confident they can anticipate the consequence of leaks.” Davis concurred with Elcock that the individuals leaking the documents are likely not located in CSIS, a conclusion which clashes directly with Pierre Poilievre’s claim that the leaks are the result of “an uprising at our intelligence body” against the government. She also echoed the comments of officials at the parliamentary committee, noting that “for our allies, it is completely unacceptable to have sensitive documents shared like this. These sorts of leaks will have them asking whether or not we can be trusted to protect the super-sensitive information they are sharing with us.”[xvii] Davis’ comments, interestingly, could be found on the website of the Guardian, a British newspaper, but not in mainstream Canadian media.
This biased approach is particularly evident in headlines, something that the media knows may be the only part of a story many readers take in, and clearly plays to the populist rhetoric of the government’s critics, to say nothing of the current media mantra that only conflict sells newspapers. Hence the news that Global Affairs had rejected a visa for a Chinese diplomat on security grounds in the fall of 2022, which arguably supports the government’s position that it had been taking action on this issue all along, was instead breathlessly portrayed negatively as some sort of cover-up. [xviii] Meanwhile the prime minister’s careful effort to explain the rationale for national security measures in the face of opposition calls for a public inquiry was reported by one national media outlet as “Eight Excuses to Duck a Public Inquiry.”[xix]
These examples, of course, do not begin to address the profusion of misinformation and disinformation floating in the ether of social media. Suffice it to say that this situation is especially worrisome when one considers that public opinion polls have revealed a bare majority of Canadians continue to obtain their news from mainstream sources, with younger cohorts more likely to rely on social media.[xx]
In light of this information gap, it is perhaps incumbent on this article to conclude with some important examples of what is and is not actually known about this matter, namely:
- No one, and certainly not the Liberal government, is disputing the fact that the Chinese government may well have tried to meddle in Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021.
- Two separate independent expert reports have concluded they were not successful, and there is no evidence that they had any impact on the results.
- One or more individuals are leaking top secret documents in violation of the National Security Information Act, yet only the government seems to be concerned with this breach of national security, and certainly not the opposition or the media.
- Moreover, as countless experts have noted, the information contained in those documents is highly problematic since it may be selective, incomplete, taken out of context or indeed inaccurate.
- Contrary to opposition and media claims, the federal government has not ignored the issue but had taken numerous initiatives to safeguard the electoral process and Canadian democracy long before the leaks emerged. (See list below.)
- Meanwhile our Five Eyes partners are increasingly inclined to leave Canada out of their top secret deliberations because they are concerned about our inability to maintain national security standards.
- The persistent leaks – and the out-of-control, irresponsible opposition and media response to them — are themselves causing increasing uncertainty and distrust among Canadians about our democratic institutions
In short, this is a manufactured “crisis.” President Xi Jinping must be laughing.
List of preventive/corrective measures taken by the Trudeau government to date:
- In 2017: introduced legislation to create the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), made up of Members of Parliament from each party and Senators with top-secret security clearance to review national security and intelligence activities across the Government of Canada. It was modelled on similar approaches taken by our international partners and has since reviewed and provided recommendations on issues concerning national security, like cyber attacks. In 2019, the NSICOP completed a review of foreign interference in Canada and published it in their 2019 annual report.
- In 2019: introduced legislation to create the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), made up of top independent experts, to strengthen independent scrutiny and national security accountability in Canada. The NSIRA independently reviews all Government of Canada national security and intelligence activities to ensure are lawful, reasonable, and necessary, and provides recommendations to the Government of Canada.
- As part of the Plan to Protect our Democracy, starting with the 2019 election, established the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (the Protocol), which is administered by a panel of the most senior federal public servants who, working with national security agencies, are responsible for communicating with Canadians in the event of an incident or series of incidents that threaten the integrity of a federal election.
- In both the 2019 and 2021 federal general elections, the panel reported that while foreign inference attempts existed, the elections unfolded with integrity.
- The Protocol includes an independent assessment which, in both 2019 and 2021, reiterated the panel’s findings that these elections were free and fair.
- The government also created the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election (SITE) Task Force, composed of officials from the Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Global Affairs Canada. The SITE Task Force works to identify and prevent covert, clandestine, or criminal activities from influencing or interfering with the electoral process in Canada.
- Canada established the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix to help G7 countries identify and respond to diverse and evolving foreign threats to democracy.
- Other measures to bolster our democratic institutions:
- In 2018: strengthened elections financing laws to keep foreign money out of our elections;
- In 2019: launched the Digital Citizen Initiative to help people better understand and identify online disinformation;
- Introduced new legislation to protect our cyber security.
[ii] https://www.thebeaverton.com/2022/03/conservatives-say-trudeau-will-be-defeated-like-all-other-dictators-in-an-election/ and https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/some-conservatives-disagree-with-mp-calling-trudeau-a-dictator-in-house-of-commons-1.5841623
[xix] Globe and Mail. March 13, 2023.