Canada can learn from Australia on addressing foreign interference, experts say

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OTTAWA – A former top public servant and a prominent national security researcher say Canada can look to Australia for ideas on better handling the threat of foreign interference.
Ottawa should “copy and paste” Australia’s 2018 legislation that requires people lobbying on behalf of other countries to register with the government, said Michael Wernick, who was clerk of the Privy Council from 2016 to 2019.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s detailed public threat assessments could be a model for Canada’s spy service on explaining the elements of foreign interference, added Wesley Wark, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

The Liberal government has come under pressure in recent weeks to explain what Canada is doing about allegations of Chinese meddling — spelled out in anonymous leaks to the media from security sources — in the last two federal elections.

In the normal course of relations, countries will criticize other nations or take decisions that might be damaging, but that is overt behaviour that could simply be called “aggressive diplomacy,” Wark said.

Actions cross the threshold into the realm of foreign interference when they are carried out covertly.

A foreign government like China, for example, might try to target diaspora communities to encourage them to adopt pro-Chinese positions, or to silence them through threats, Wark noted.

It could extend into the electoral arena if Beijing were to clandestinely encourage a community of Canadians to support candidates that might favour a more pro-China position, or undermine the legitimacy of candidates whose views China did not like.

In addition to passing the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act in 2018, Australia has taken several other steps, including appointment of a national counter-foreign interference co-ordinator and establishment of a task force that brings together security and police agencies to discover, disrupt and investigate foreign interference activity.

“It would be a good thing If our political parties got together and treated this in the national interest,” said Wernick.

Under a federal protocol concerning elections, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair ballot.

There was no such announcement concerning the 2019 or 2021 elections. In both instances, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

A report by former public servant Morris Rosenberg, made public Tuesday, found that several aspects of the protocol worked well in 2021.

However, he flagged communication as one of the areas for improvement.

“There were numerous comments on the need for an early announcement to communicate clearly to Canadians and to the media about the nature of the threat, the integrated plan put in place to address it, and the role of the Protocol and the Panel as one element of that plan,” the report says.

Agencies including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have not displayed a willingness to be truly open and transparent about the threats the country faces, Wark said.

“They still don’t see that as their business, to inform the public,” he said.

“So we get, we get dribs and drabs of reporting, but nothing really substantive and nothing systematic.”

In contrast, the head of Australia’s ASIO gives an annual address spelling out such threats.

In the most recent speech, given last month, director-general of security Mike Burgess said Australia was facing an unprecedented challenge from espionage and foreign interference “and I’m not convinced we, as a nation, fully appreciate the damage it inflicts on Australia’s security, democracy, sovereignty, economy and social fabric.”

“In the last year, we have identified multiple spies from multiple countries developing and trying to leverage relationships with government officials, bank workers, doctors, police employees and other professions to obtain the personal details of perceived dissidents.”

He also provided details of two recent foreign interference plots, saying both were stopped “before harm could be done.”

There is an “important distinction” between a foreign state’s intentions and capabilities, “which I think has gone entirely missing in this current hullabaloo over Chinese election interference,” Wark said.

Intelligence leaks about China’s intention to interfere in Canadian elections don’t necessarily reveal anything about what, if any, damage was actually done.

That can cast doubt on both the loyalty of the Chinese diaspora community and the ability of people to make up their own minds in the political sphere, Wark said.

“Both of those suggestions are deeply anti-democratic, and actually serve Chinese objectives in ways that, that I don’t think anybody’s commenting on.”

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