OTTAWA—Foreign and domestic groups looking to influence Canadian politics will soon face tougher rules around political financing and transparency, the Star has learned.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould’s office confirmed new rules are in the works to “strengthen and clarify” rules governing foreign actors’ financing Canadian political advocacy, as well as domestic third party pressure groups.
That could mean stricter transparency rules for groups that fund Canadian advocacy through international donations, such as the New York-headquarterd left-leaning Avaaz or CitizenGo, a religious conservative group headquartered in Madrid.
CitizenGo recently launched a letter-writing campaign against changes to federal summer job grants that call on recipients to respect individual human rights in Canada, including reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, which are opposed by many faith groups.
Its campaign accounted for 31,278 of the 33,682 letters received by the government on the changes, Labour Minister Patty Hajdu’s office told the Star.
A Canadian spokesperson for CitizenGo, David Cooke, estimated that about 60 per cent of letters collected by his organization came from Canadians, with the remaining 40 per cent coming from like-minded foreign citizens.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency seen around many third parties on all sides of the political spectrum,” Jordan Owens, a spokesperson for Gould, said in a statement.
“Canada has robust finance rules governing political fundraising from foreign actors, but we will further strengthen and clarify these rules to ensure greater transparency in our political fundraising system and a stronger defence against foreign interference in our democratic process.”
The new rules are expected later this spring. But Owens suggested they’ll deal with transparency around how organizations “seeking to influence the government” are backed, where they’re located and how they use “data and information” collected from Canadians.
A total of 104 third-party groups spent more than $ 6 million during the 2015 federal election, according to financial reports filed with Elections Canada. Many of those groups were labour unions, and most would be considered to be on the left of the political spectrum.
Third-party spending, such as on advertising, is strictly regulated during election campaigns. But before the writ is dropped, it’s largely a free-for-all. And with fixed dates for general elections, third parties have a reliable schedule to prepare advocacy campaigns.
The unregulated pre-election campaign spending gave rise to concerns, particularly among conservatives facing broad progressive coalitions and union campaigns, that third parties could undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral system.
“It took us 40 years of scandal (and) sweat to come to a regime where we had the best in the world for control of money in politics,” former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley told the Canadian Press in 2015.
“Now we are back in the jungle.”
Concerns about foreign interference in domestic elections resurfaced today, with well-documented examples of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and an orchestrated cyber campaign to influence the Brexit vote. But it’s clear the Kremlin isn’t the only threat to a level playing field in Canadian elections.
Conservative Sen. Linda Frum has introduced a bill that would prohibit Canadian third parties from using foreign money to finance election-related activities. Frum said it was a “very positive development” that Gould’s office will take up the issue.
“This issue does not belong to any individual. It does not belong to any party. It’s a national concern,” Frum told the Star on Tuesday.
“(The change) that I’ve been focused on is prohibiting foreign contributions to third parties… for election-related activities. That’s a rule in almost every other Western democracy. We’re one of the only outliers on this.”