We need an independent, non-partisan public inquiry into foreign election meddling that goes beyond China.
Powerful, non-government foreign entities, including foreign-influenced corporations, regularly intervene in our elections. Their meddling is more effective than China’s because they hire Canadian managers, gaily wave the Maple Leaf and seem Canadian. They know how to sway voters better than China’s operatives.
After allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Ottawa passed the Elections Modernization Act to ban foreign interference in federal elections. Yet it left a mile-wide loophole through which the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) drove a gas-guzzling Hummer. Based in Calgary, CAPP is Big Foreign Oil’s apex lobbyist.
The Elections Act states that third parties may not fund election activities “if the source of funds is a foreign entity.” That includes “corporations outside Canada.” But foreign-owned corporations are inexplicably exempt if they list their headquarters in Canada.
That makes no sense. Foreign-owned means foreign-funded and foreign-influenced.
Canada should follow the lead of US Congressperson Jamie Raskin and Senator Elizabeth Warren to ban foreign-influenced corporations from election interference. Ellen Weintraub, former chair of the US Federal Election Commission wrote that individual foreigners are barred from spending to sway elections; it defies logic to allow groups of foreigners to fund political spending through corporations.
My research shows that the Canadian-ness of large oil corporations operating in Canada is an inch deep. None are majority Canadian-owned. Of the 48 corporations on CAPP’s 2020 board, 30 were fully or majority foreign-owned. Seven more were very likely majority foreign-owned. That makes 37 of the 48 (77 percent) CAPP’s board members wholly or majority foreign-owned and influenced. CAPP gets approximately 97 percent of its revenue from them.
Before the 2015 federal election, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the powerful US oil lobby group, counselled CAPP on creating a Canadian version of the API’s “Energy Citizens.” Funded by the API, Energy Citizens is an “Astroturf” pro-oil front group that masquerades as “grassroots” citizens and promotes Big Oil’s interests and tries to sway voters. Astroturf is synthetic grass.
CAPP created and funded Canada’s Energy Citizens (CEC), a copycat Astroturf group that just stuck “Canada” in front of the US name. Mimicking the API’s brand of American petro-nationalism, Canada’s Energy Citizens trumpets a red-blooded version of Canadian petro-nationalism that portrays Canadian identity as inextricably linked to oil.
While insisting it’s non-partisan, CAPP backed the Conservatives to champion its anti-climate action agenda. Shortly before the 2019 federal election, CAPP held a daylong, closed-door conference with the federal Conservatives near Calgary to strategize on ousting Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Topics included suing environmental groups to silence them, “rallying the base” using pro-oil front groups, getting support for more pipelines, lowering corporate taxes, and reducing regulation. Tim McMillan, then CAPP’s president, introduced a panel on “paths to federal election victory.”
Can you get more partisan than that?
Before the 2019 federal election, CAPP’s CEC created a “Vote Energy” platform to counteract rising support for climate action. It urged supporters to vote for candidates who endorse oil industry expansion.
CAPP was allowed to register as a third-party advertiser for the first time in the 2019 federal election. As a registered third party, it could spend up to $1.5 million before and during the election period and run ads supporting candidates and parties and advocate on issues.
Voters need access to accurate information. The Elections Act prohibits making false statements during elections. CAPP’s Vote Energy platform asserted that “Canada’s only credible path to meeting its Paris commitments is through increased exports of Canadian natural gas.”
It wanted government to “acknowledge that Canada’s oil and natural gas sector is not subsidized.” Both statements are provably false.
Democracy is currently on trial in the court of Canadian public opinion. To clear the air, we need an independent public inquiry with a broad mandate to investigate all forms of foreign-funded, political meddling.
Gordon Laxer is a political economist and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.