The Weekly Writ for May 24: Why restoring trust in elections will be hard
Plus, the race in Alberta, the Ontario Liberal leadership and a blank cheque for Blanchet.
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.
Yesterday, David Johnston came forward with his recommendations on what steps should be taken next on the foreign interference file. He thinks he should continue his work and that public hearings, not a public inquiry, are the way forward.
The government has accepted Johnston’s recommendations. The opposition parties aren’t satisfied, and I suspect many (perhaps even most) newspaper columns this morning are arguing that Justin Trudeau should drop Johnston and launch a public inquiry.
But there’s a problem. There’s been broad recognition that a public inquiry would be imperfect, especially since so much would have to be kept confidential in the name of national security. Nevertheless, the argument has been made that, at the very least, a public inquiry is needed to re-establish Canadians’ faith in our democracy and reassure those who fear that China (and other foreign actors) have swung, or could swing, our elections.
Be it an independent inquiry or public hearings, I just don’t think that will happen.
We don’t need to go back very far to find an example of how an inquiry can have little impact on deeply-held, often partisan-driven opinions.
Justice Paul Rouleau’s inquiry on the use of the Emergencies Act to deal with the occupation of Ottawa during the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ concluded that the federal government met the threshold for the use of the Act. Were opinions changed? The chattering classes had chosen their camps before the report came out and very few appeared to have changed their minds, some taking Rouleau’s conclusion as just one opinion among others, no more, no less.
The same can be said of the general public.
Polling by the Innovative Research Group found that a few weeks after Rouleau’s report came out, 50% of Canadians polled said they agreed with the government’s decision to invoke the Act, while 23% opposed it. When IRG polled in 2022, it found very similar numbers: 49% support to 30% opposition. Opposition went down, but not by a whole lot — what went up the most was people who said “I don’t know”.
Opposition was primarily among Conservative voters, while support was primarily among Liberals. People stayed in their camps.
I fear the same will happen here. Partisanship isn’t driving concern over Chinese interference in our elections as much as it is driving doubts about the fairness of our elections.
In February, the Angus Reid Institute found that 63% of Liberal voters and 77% of Conservatives believed that China tried to interfere in our elections. But while just 6% of Liberals felt that the 2021 election was “stolen”, 42% of Conservatives did.
The danger here is that this discussion echoes and is amplified by what we see in the United States. A CNN poll in March found that 63% of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 presidential election. Over the last two years, despite everything we’ve heard from reputable media and in Congress about how there is no evidence that the election was stolen, that proportion of Republicans who believe Biden’s win is illegitimate has only gone down by eight points.
And we’re not immune from that here. Last year, Abacus Data found that 16% of Canadians believed it was definitely or probably true that the U.S. election was stolen from Donald Trump, while another 21% said it was possibly true or that they were unsure. Among Conservatives voters, 49% either felt it was at least possibly true or that they weren’t sure if Trump had the election stolen from him.
If people believe an election can be stolen south of the border despite all evidence to the contrary, it isn’t much of a leap to be convinced it could happen here, too.
Johnston’s hearings, or an independent public inquiry, could result in good recommendations that will safeguard our elections. We might learn a lot more about how our national security apparatus works, where its failings are and what gaps exist in how that information gets filtered through to decision-makers. It might reveal some instances where the Liberals fell short, giving voters the opportunity to hold them accountable in the next election.
But these details and nuances, regardless of the good they could do, would mostly be of interest to Official Ottawa. Any inquiry or hearing that has all the trappings of Official Ottawa is unlikely to change the minds or assuage the fears of Canadians who already question our institutions — people who won’t let some fancy judge or former governor-general pull the wool over their eyes.
Perhaps that’s too much cynicism so early in the morning. So, without further ado, let’s get to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News on Crombie’s candidacy for the Ontario Liberals, the Bloc leader’s vote of confidence and the latest from the halls of academe.
Polls on the Alberta debate, the Toronto race and Quebec’s views on immigration.
Liberal-Conservative tie nationally, UCP advantage in Alberta if the election were held today.
The final tipping point riding of the Alberta campaign.
Albertans approach a generational shift in the #EveryElectionProject.