Why is Pierre Poilievre going after Elections Canada?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has been taking shots at what he calls the "Liberal lapdogs" at Elections Canada. It's a risky tactic.

The Conservative MP's reference to 'paid influencers' raises spectre of election-rigging

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre stands during question period in the House of Commons Friday, February 1, 2019 in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

If Pierre Poilievre was a basketball coach, he might be accused right now of "working the ref" — a tactic that has come to be an accepted part of professional sports.

But because he's an elected member of Parliament, and because he's casting aspersions on one of the foundational institutions of Canadian democracy, his public remonstrations seem more serious than that.

"Hard to trust the Liberal lapdogs at Elections Canada," the Conservative MP tweeted on Monday, "who let Liberals-SNC off for $100k donation scam & has paid influencers to intervene in the campaign."

The reference to "SNC" relates to a compliance agreement signed between SNC-Lavalin and the federal commissioner of elections in 2016. As part of that agreement, the company acknowledged illegally reimbursing some of its employees for political donations — $110,000 to the Liberal Party and $8,000 to the Conservative Party — and agreed to implement measures to ensure its employees behave properly in the future. (According to the agreement, the executives involved in the reimbursement no longer work for SNC-Lavalin.)

One former executive from SNC-Lavalin also pleaded guilty to two charges related to the donations. But when news of that compliance agreement was revived this spring, a lawyer for Dean Del Mastro — the former Conservative MP convicted of three elections offences in 2015 and sentenced to a month of house arrest — suggested SNC-Lavalin had gotten off comparatively easy.

Former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The commissioner regularly uses compliance agreements to resolve violations. In fact, one of the 29 agreements issued in the last four years involved Poilievre, after the Conservative MP wore a golf shirt with the Conservative party logo to a Government of Canada announcement.

Poilievre seemed disturbed by SNC-Lavalin's deal, telling reporters that "Elections Canada has a lot of explaining to do." (In fact, at the time of the compliance agreement, the commissioner of elections was housed within the office of the director of public prosecutions — the result of a change that Poilievre himself made with the so-called "Fair Elections Act.")

The reference to "paid influencers," meanwhile, relates to Elections Canada's plan to enlist popular social media users as part of a campaign to encourage younger Canadians to vote. Young people tend to vote at lower rates than other age cohorts, so there's an argument for making an effort to encourage them to participate.

When they do vote, young people tend to favour parties of the political left. And so, Conservatives may be concerned that this attempt at boosting civic engagement might have an impact that isn't entirely apolitical.

Vote-rigging talk ramps up

Whether either of these measures qualifies Elections Canada — a legally independent institution that reports to Parliament — to be described as a den of "Liberal lapdogs" is at least debatable.

But while Poilievre is questioning the integrity of the official authority on federal elections, his fellow Conservatives have suggested that the Trudeau government is angling to "rig" the next vote.

The Conservatives have used the r-word to describe Liberal changes to the regulation of pre-campaign political spending, the government's plans to boost struggling private media companies, Elections Canada's hiring of social influencers, and the creation of a commissioner to organize leaders' debates.

To suggest that an election is being rigged is about as serious an allegation as one can level at a sitting government. It is the sort of thing that conjures thoughts of stuffed ballot boxes and gerrymandered electoral districts.

To be fair, this isn't the first time such an accusation has been floated by opposition MPs — it came up a few times when the Conservatives re-wrote elections laws in 2014. But the accusation is being levelled with some frequency now. And the most recent accusations might ring louder in the current global context.

A fraught moment for democracy around the world

Since 2016, multiple reports have warned that global democracy is eroding, as public trust declines and institutions are attacked. Authoritarianism and "illiberal democracy" are now seen as real threats to the Western democratic order. "Fake news," misinformation and foreign interference have further added to a general sense of instability and mistrust surrounding the democratic process.

This fall's campaign could be a closely contested race riven by online suspicion and conspiracy theories. To drop an accusation of official bias or 'election-rigging' into such a potentially volatile situation risks significant consequences for public faith in the result.

None of which means Elections Canada or the federal government should be beyond reproach. But the tenor of the times might at least demand that such accusations be levelled with a certain amount of care and seriousness.

It also raises questions for the accusers. Does Poilievre have any proposals for increasing the independence of Elections Canada? Are Conservatives prepared to question the legitimacy of the election result? If they truly do believe that the election will be somehow tainted, shouldn't they be even louder in raising that alarm?

The Unifor factor

By the same token, the Liberals might ask themselves whether Unifor's involvement in the panel that will preside over the government's new media fund (the source of one of the Conservatives' complaints) is wise.

This isn't the first time Poilievre has suggested he has problems with Elections Canada. In 2014, after the chief electoral officer raised concerns about the Conservative government's proposed election reforms, Poilievre told a Senate committee that Marc Mayrand just wanted "more power, a bigger budget and less accountability."

"He is fighting to retain this power, making some incredible claims and inventing some novel legal principles to do it," Poilievre alleged.

Appearing later before the same committee, former auditor general Sheila Fraser expressed dismay over Poilievre's words.

"It troubles me greatly ... I would say disturbs me greatly, to see comments that are made, and I will be quite blunt, by the minister ... attacking personally the chief electoral officer," she said.

"This serves none of us well. It undermines the credibility of these institutions. And at the end of the day, if this is to continue, we will all pay, because no one will have faith in government, or in chief electoral officers, or our democratic system."

Politics is often conducted as if it's a sport. Ultimately, though, it's no game.

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Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.