National Column: Election officer plays crucial role

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by Chantal Hebert

The self-serving practice of preying on the concerns of targeted groups of voters by feeding them dubious information was baked in the DNA of Canada’s political parties long before social media offered them sophisticated avenues to do so.

In the early ’80s, I covered a provincial byelection campaign in eastern Ontario that saw the then-ruling Tories drop pamphlets on every doorstep to warn that a vote for one of the opposition parties was a vote for the province to become officially bilingual.

The riding was home to a high number of federal civil servants. Many of them were still rattled by the introduction of the Official Languages Act. They feared the creation of more bilingual positions within the federal civil service would impair their careers. The pamphlets were calculated to hit a nerve, and they did.

The information also happened to be false. Neither the New Democrats nor the Liberals were promoting a policy to make Ontario officially bilingual. They still donít.

Fast forward to this week and the federal Conservative Facebook ad that warns about a Liberal hidden gun registry agenda. The suggestion is no more subtle a distortion than the stoking – in the William Davis era – of language fears among non-bilingual Ontarians.

The Liberals have no more intention of restoring the registry than Stephen Harper had a secret plan to restrict access to abortion.

The fact that the above examples involve Conservative parties should not be taken to suggest that they alone use social media to try to frame reality to their advantage.

To various degrees all parties are invested heavily in the digital playground. Beyond electoral gain they have a strong incentive to mine for as much personal data as is digitally (and legally) possible. Their financial well-being is increasingly dependent on their social media outreach.

On its face the decision to ban corporate and union money and limit federal party financing to individuals was a sound move. It shifted influence from deep-pocketed organizations often operating in the backrooms of power to voters.

But it also meant the parties are spending a lot more time and energy looking for ways to reach and motivate supporters liable – on the basis of their perceived opinions – to contribute to their respective war chests.

The digital world offers political organizations access to an unprecedentedly large pool of potential donors/voters and to a ton of background knowledge pertaining to what makes them tick. In political terms, that is akin to letting a child loose in a candy store. Most parents do not expect their kids to police themselves in such circumstances.

As the 2019 federal election nears, against the backdrop of the last American presidential campaign, all parties will tell you they are concerned about the dual threat of foreign manipulation and the mass spreading of algorithm-based fake news.

Those possibilities are only too real and that collective concern is sincere. But Canadaís main parties also have a common interest in preserving as much leeway as possible to continue to mine for data for their own purposes.

That goes some way to explain why none has really been clamouring to be fully subjected to the federal laws governing the handling of personal information.

Over the past few weeks, the current government has talked a good game about taking preventive measures to protect the integrity of Canadaís next election.

But in this the Liberals are judge and jury. And thatís a dual role they have so far not been in a hurry to share with less self-interested agents.

One of the central safeguards of a sound electoral system is the presence of an independent elections overseer liable, if need be, to blow the whistle on government attempts to stack the decks.

It is now 15 months since Canada last had a permanent chief electoral officer.

That is the longest hiatus in recent memory.

In his time, Harper – who was not known to have an affectionate relationship with parliamentary watchdogs – appointed a successor to replace the outgoing Jean-Pierre Kingsley in a matter of days.

The vacancy has not caused Elections Canada to grind to a halt. But anyone who has held a leadership position on an interim basis can testify that a temporary role comes minus the gravitas required to do more than see to the day-to-day operation of an organization.

The governmentís lackadaisical approach to filling the pivotal job of elections watchdog stands in sharp contrast with its professed concern for the countryís upcoming rendezvous with electoral democracy.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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