The federal government should explore lowering the threshold for when to notify Canadians about potential interference in the middle of an election campaign, says a report released Tuesday evaluating how an independent panel monitored the 2021 election.
Former civil servant Morris Rosenberg, who was tasked with writing the independent report on the protocol designed to inform Canadians in the event of threats to the 2021 federal election, concluded it worked well overall.
But he made several recommendations on better informing Canadians about what the panel created by the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol would consider cause for concern and urged further study on whether to lower the bar on when to tell them about potential threats.
The report comes more than 17 months after the last election, at a time when media reports regarding allegations of Chinese interference in both the 2019 and 2021 elections have led to increased scrutiny of the protocol and calls for greater transparency over potential threats.
The protocol was created in 2019 to monitor threats to federal elections. If a threat meets its threshold, the panel created by the protocol can make an announcement to Canadians.
The threshold currently sets out several considerations, including the degree to which the incident undermines Canadians’ ability to have a free and fair election, the potential for an incident to undermine election credibility and the degree of confidence officials have in the intelligence of information about an incident.
Rosenberg said the panel of five senior public servants did not find there was foreign interference in either the 2019 or 2021 elections that compared to the scale of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
But the panel did find there were attempts at foreign interference that did not meet the threshold, with Rosenberg saying an announcement of that kind was seen as a measure of last resort.
He said there was “no clear consensus” among those he interviewed for his report on the idea of announcing threats that fall below the existing threshold.
Those who were against it “based their view on the need for a very high bar during the caretaker period,” he wrote. “There is also the possibility that an announcement about interference could influence the results of the election,” he added.
Others argued greater transparency would build confidence in electoral integrity.
“If there was a clear case of interference that affected a single riding or targeted an ethnic group, it is unlikely to be considered significant enough to threaten the credibility of the entire election. And yet, if there is no mechanism to inform the voters targeted, they may exercise their votes based on false information or be intimidated into not voting at all,” he wrote.
“There was a related concern that withholding information and having it come out after the election would decrease public confidence in the government’s approach to countering election interference,” he wrote as he called for greater study.
The report also said language around the threshold for when an announcement is made regarding foreign interference should be changed to clarify or remove a requirement to demonstrate impact before making an announcement.
The report said officials were also concerned about domestic interference.
It says the government understood disinformation around the legitimacy of the 2020 United States election, which was fuelled in part by former president Donald Trump, stemmed mainly from domestic sources.
Officials were concerned Canada could have a similar problem in its own election.
Government officials were also aware, the report says, the 2021 election would likely be taking place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating more potential for domestic interference.
“There was a large amount of misinformation circulating about vaccine requirements and other public health measures, much of it being spread by domestic actors,” the report says. “There was also significant resistance to these measures.”
Opposition to COVID-19 restrictions helped drive the threat of violence during the 2021 election, which according to the report featured a “surge in violent discourse, online anti-government behaviour, and threatening messages.”
But Rosenberg found in his report that despite the increased emphasis on threats from domestic actors, the government did not provide a clear communication plan explaining any focus on domestic interference and the type of activities it included.
The report recommends a public explanation should be given for including domestic actors in the protocol and the type of activities that are of concern.
Rosenberg says there should be an assessment of whether security details for party leaders and other levels of policing are able to handle “the level and persistence of the threats” politicians face before the next election takes place.
The report also calls for national security agencies to develop a program of unclassified briefings to boost the awareness that members of Parliament and senators have about foreign interference. Some of them have called for this in recent months.
Security agencies should brief lawmakers on election interference and measures they can take to safeguard themselves and their online information, Rosenberg says.
The report says political parties were “generally pleased” with the information shared by government during the 2021 election, but would have preferred briefings begin earlier. The report noted the Bloc Québécois and Green Party chose not to participate.
Rosenberg also recommended the work of the panel begin earlier, which could lead to a more fully developed communications plan on public announcements, and deeper briefings for political parties.
“There should be an effort made to provide briefings to political party representatives at downtown Ottawa secure locations,” the report says.