The Weekly Writ for Feb. 22
On Chinese interference in the 2021 federal election; ignoring the noise in polls; and Brian Tobin's whirlwind election.
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
Reports in The Globe and Mail of Chinese interference in the last federal election are alarming and concerning. The interference by any foreign power, particularly one as anti-democratic and authoritarian as China, in a free democracy like Canada is worrisome. Steps should be taken to prevent it from happening and to limit its effectiveness.
That it might have happened in Canada is a problem that should not be casually dismissed.
But it is difficult to know whether it was effective.
Certainly, the Conservatives appear to have lost support among Chinese Canadians in the 2021 federal election. In the nine ridings where at least 33% of the population self-identifies as Chinese, the Conservatives lost an average of 8.9 percentage points compared to their 2019 results. In the neighbouring ridings that had a Chinese population of less than 33%, the Conservatives gained an average of 0.1 point.
The Liberals gained 5.5 more points in ridings with a large Chinese-Canadian population than they did in neighbouring ridings.
Note: I took another look at my numbers here and took a different approach for identifying “neighbouring” ridings than what I had in the newsletter this morning. The result is only marginally different, but I think these calculations are more accurate.
There’s certainly some correlation there. But is there causation?
Considering that more than a few Canadian political campaigners have over-stated their role in past election victories, I have no reason to believe Chinese diplomats are immune from the same kind of self-aggrandizement. And even if they sincerely believed they swung a Canadian election, how would they possibly know that for sure? We barely understand what decides our own elections as it is.
We can’t ignore the agency that Chinese-Canadian voters have — the kind of rhetoric coming from the Conservatives that China identified as hostile might have also been perceived by Chinese Canadians as hostile toward their community. The propaganda efforts by the Chinese government might have been pushing at an already open door.
And even if we attribute all of the extra pro-Liberal, anti-Conservative swing in the ridings with large Chinese-Canadian populations to the interference campaign by the Chinese government, it still wouldn’t have been enough to impact the outcome outside of a few ridings, notably Markham–Unionville, Richmond Centre and Steveston–Richmond East. Beyond these and perhaps a few others, where the races were close enough that interference could have swung them, the margins between the Liberals and Conservatives start to get too big and the Chinese-Canadian populations too small.
The report also says that the Chinese government was trying to engineer a re-elected Liberal minority government. While that is what, of course, happened, it is such a specific outcome requiring so many different things to go right that no foreign power would plausibly be able to pull it off. What does the Chinese government think it is — a Globe and Mail editorial?
The main obstacle that prevented the Liberals from securing a majority was their failure to win more seats in Quebec, a province in which the influence of the Chinese Communist Party is, shall we say, limited. What got in the way of the Conservatives from forming government was their inability to win lots of seats in places like Brampton, Mississauga, Kitchener and parts of Atlantic Canada, places where the Chinese-Canadian population is low.
In order for the Conservatives to have won more seats than the Liberals in 2021, more than 20 ridings would have had to flip between them. It’s implausible that the Chinese government would have single-handedly had the power to accomplish that.
But that China tried to influence the outcome of our elections is a problem. That it might have conceivably succeeded in a few ridings is an even bigger problem — and the Liberals need to make it clear they are taking this problem seriously.
Now to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News of a potential spring election in P.E.I., a floor-crossing in B.C., a byelection in Ontario and leadership news out of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Polls remind us that, sometimes, it’s just noise. Plus, the NDP gets some bad numbers in Calgary.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives would be re-elected if the election were held today.
Hamilton Centre riding profile and byelection setup.
Brian Tobin’s whirlwind start to 1996 in the #EveryElectionProject.
Let’s get to it!