The new Elections Modernization Act leaves some significant loopholes that could allow foreign money to continue to materially influence Canadian elections, critics warn.Recent amendments to the Canada Elections Act (Bill C-76) states that political advocacy groups — officially known as “third parties” — that register to be involved in an election campaign can still accept money from foreign sources, but those foreign funds must not be used for partisan purposes.It’s a bit like having a smoking section on an airplane. It’s impossible to prevent the smoke — or in this case the foreign money — from polluting the purity of the atmosphere.“The idea that a registered third party in Canada can receive any foreign funding for any purpose is still a ridiculous loophole that we need to close,” said Conservative Senator Linda Frum, who was reached in Toronto and tried through her Bill S-239, the Eliminating Foreign Funding in Elections Act, as well as amendments to have those and other loopholes closed.“You can have an office and staff members, you can have a travel budget that’s all being funded by money from foreign sources to offset costs a third party might otherwise have to pay for, leaving them more money to spend on partisan activities,” points out Frum.“So the obvious solution to this is to say no foreign funding of third parties period, for any activity, not just partisan activities and not just election activity but any activity. That would close the loophole completely and they chose not to do that,” she says of the federal Liberal government.As a result, this existing loophole, while slightly smaller than it was during the 2015 federal election — which saw significant foreign interference favouring the Liberal party — will “undoubtedly” be a factor in the upcoming vote, she predicts.Like Frum, former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley is pleased with many of the changes made to the Elections Act but is puzzled why the foreign funding loophole was not completely choked off.“It’s a serious loophole and it’s definitely something that we need to be concerned about, and if it’s not a major problem then what’s wrong with blocking it?” wonders Kingsley, who served as Canada’s chief electoral officer for 17 years from 1990 until 2007.“We should be striving to achieve Canadian elections that are Canadian-only — end of story,” said Kingsley, who was reached at his home in Ottawa on Thursday.
OTTAWA JAN 31-2007–Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada-Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Photo by Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen, Canwest NewsServices
Section 349.02 of the Elections Act states: “No third party shall use funds for a partisan activity, for advertising, for election advertising or for an election survey if the source of the funds is a foreign entity.”June 30 marks the official start of the pre-electoral period for the October federal election. Election period spending limits have not yet been finalized, as those are based on the number of names on the list of electors. However, Elections Canada has some forecasted spending limits for political entities for the 2019 election.Currently, third parties can spend $1,023,400 in the pre-election period, which starts Sunday — or $10,234 per electoral district — and another $511,700 during the election period.A registered political party that runs a candidate in all 338 federal ridings can spend up to $2,046,800 in the pre-election period and as much as $28,082,840.Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault, who did not agree to an interview for this story, told the Senate’s Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on Nov. 28, 2018, just before the bill received royal assent: “With respect to third parties and the possibility of foreign interference in Canadian elections, the changes contained in the bill are significant. If the bill becomes law, the activities of third parties will be much more extensively regulated, both before and after the writ, and their use of foreign funds will be greatly restricted.”Frum is also concerned with changes to the law that will allow non-resident Canadians not only to vote all over the world, but to set up a registered third party in any country.“To me that’s a gigantic loophole because how is Elections Canada supposed to be monitoring registered third parties in foreign countries that are operating inside our election?” she asked.Frum points to how on June 20, Perrault announced that Elections Canada was scrapping its “influencers” campaign — which paid 13 athletes, YouTubers and other social-media celebrities to urge young people to vote.Only after a good chunk of the program’s $650,000 had been distributed and spent was the program scrapped, because past activities of some of the participants could be perceived as partisan.“I did not feel that I had the right assurances that were necessary to protect our reputation as an unimpeachable, neutral and non-partisan agency for the election,” Perrault was quoted as saying.“I was really struck by this,” said Frum. “If you can’t Google people you just paid $650,000 to, how are you equipped to monitor our social media for foreign influence in foreign countries?” she rightly asked.“The level of competency that was revealed by that exercise of selecting non-partisan influencers is hardly reassuring,” she added.What’s also troubling is it took Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about 18 months to choose a new chief electoral officer, eventually hiring Perrault, who had been the acting CEO.As a result, Perrault “was effectively auditioning for the role,” damaging his independence when election legislation was being developed.“It’s not his fault,” said Frum of Perrault. “I’m not blaming him, I’m blaming this government for dangling the job in front of him while he was working on their election legislation. He came out fully endorsing it,” and ignoring amendments that would have vastly improved the legislation.That the Trudeau government doesn’t want to close off the foreign-funding loophole entirely is not surprising. U.S.-funded NGOs, some of the same ones that have successfully landlocked Canadian oil through the Tar Sands Campaign, boasted that they “moved the needle” during the 2015 election that got Trudeau elected.Something to ponder on Canada Day.Licia Corbella is a Postmedia opinion columnist. email@example.com