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‘Breakdown in process’ or ‘colossal failure?’ Whatever happened, Trudeau’s national security advisor says it’s fixed

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security advisor admitted on Thursday that something went wrong with how the government handles reports from intelligence agencies but denied opposition claims that it was a wide-ranging systemic failure of Canada’s government machinery.

“I think that there was a breakdown in process and not only a breakdown in process, I think, insufficient process. And so we have rectified those problems,” said Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security advisor, who was testifying Thursday at the procedure and House affairs committee.

The committee is studying recent reports about members of Parliament being targeted by the Chinese government for intimidation for their public statements or voting habits.

“I would submit it was more than a breakdown in process. It is a colossal failure on the part of this prime minister that we would have three MPs targeted (by China),” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper.

Media reports about Conservative MP Michael Chong being targeted by the Chinese government broke in the first week of May and opposition MPs were incredulous about the testimony by Thomas that these breakdowns had already been fixed.

“Are you really telling me that this completely was broken and in two or three weeks you fixed the problem?” said NDP MP Rachel Blaney.

“Because if it was this simple to fix then why on earth was it not fixed earlier?” said Blaney.

Thomas said the government is still reviewing the processes involved in how intelligence is handled, but said the specific issues that lead to the intelligence report about Chong not being circulated to ministers and the prime minister have been corrected.

“I think that some of the processes that we’ve laid out will be useful, and in fact, helped close some of the gaps we’ve seen,” said Thomas.

“We’re not going to rest on that and I’m going to contract with some security experts to come in and look at our process and give us advice on how we can make it even better and I’m certainly working with my colleagues in the Five Eyes (intelligence alliance) to help us improve our process based on their experiences,” said Thomas.

Thomas said that if there were any physical threat to Chong or his family he would have been notified immediately, even under the pre-existing guidelines used by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“There was no physical threat to him and I want to make that very clear, which doesn’t mean that this is not serious,” said Thomas.

Thomas said she thinks the reports given to MPs could be more detailed and descriptive instead of the “anodyne” briefings that are currently offered.

Although she admitted to a breakdown in the process, Thomas argued against a public inquiry into the issue of foreign interference in Canadian elections because the intelligence information is so sensitive. All the opposition parties have argued for a public inquiry, although David Johnston, the government’s special rapporteur looking into the issue, recommended against the idea, calling for a series of public hearings instead.

“That leads me to my concern about public inquiry. There would be very little more than what I have said here that I can say in a public inquiry. Protecting the sources of the intelligence is critical and protecting the technique in terms of how we collect intelligence is critical,” said Thomas.

Thomas also revealed how the report on Chong was missed by the government. Although Trudeau had previously told reporters that the intelligence report about Chong had never left CSIS, Chong later revealed that he had been told that it was sent to three ministries and the national security advisor at the time.

At committee on Thursday, Thomas said the deputy ministers in public safety, defence, and foreign affairs had all been sent the report, which didn’t refer to Chong specifically, but just an MP. Those deputy ministers were responsible for briefing the ministers, but Thomas said there’s no evidence that ever happened.

The report had found its way into what Cooper referred to as a “black hole.”

The UCP wins a majority in Alberta. Thank polarization for that

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Polarization gets a bad rap in politics but, as Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party celebrate a closely fought election victory in Alberta this morning, they can partially thank the deep rift in the electorate for their achievement.

Not only has polarization been shown to drive voter turnout, but it also makes voters more likely to vote in opposition to a party they dislike to keep them out of power.

The UCP can “absolutely” thank that dynamic for motivating jaded conservatives to vote for them in last night’s election, said Janet Brown, a well-known pollster in Alberta.

Alberta boasted a record turnout in advanced voting, and while the overall turnout did not reach the historic heights of the 2019 election, the overall number was much higher than other Canadian post-pandemic elections.

While the UCP will form a comfortable majority government, the NDP will represent the largest official opposition in Alberta’s history. The NDP also captured their largest share of the popular vote in the party’s history.

Both parties preyed on voters’ fear of the other side, said Brown. But because the NDP focused on Smith almost to the exclusion of providing a positive case for themselves, it made it easier for the UCP to land those attacks.

“The (NDP) focused on Smith, I don’t think they really put enough effort into demonstrating what kind of government they could deliver. And so they left voters comparing the 2015 NDP government to Danielle Smith, and they’re left scared of both prospects,” said Brown.

Because only two major parties had a real chance at winning seats, the polarized electorate also made turnout more important to each party’s chances, according to the EKOS polling company.

“Turnout is going to play a huge factor on election day, as there aren’t many would-be swing voters left in the province,” the pollster wrote in a dispatch accompanying its final polling results.

“All of the data in the poll point to this election having one of the most polarized electorates in modern Canadian history.”

A recent study on political polarization found some under-discussed benefits, mainly in boosting political participation, along with possible downsides.

One key possible benefit is that “affective polarization,” which boosts a person’s positive feelings towards their own party and dislike toward rival parties, brings new people to politics. Brown describes these people as “low bandwidth” voters, who don’t necessarily have a lot of time to consume political news.

Affective polarization’s boost to turnout appears to reflect negative partisanship, as voters focus on keeping the enemies out rather than on having their vision of society represented,” wrote Eelco Harteveld and Markus Wagner, two European political scientists, in the study on polarization.

“The resulting incumbent is then perhaps chosen less for their programme but rather for who they are not. This has unwelcome implications for accountability and representation, as electoral support becomes a negative rather than a positive endorsement of parties,” the researchers wrote.

In the tight election campaign, it came down to how much disillusioned UCP voters feared another NDP government, said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

“What do these reluctant conservatives do? Do they hold their nose and vote UCP? Or do they say, you know, a pox on both their houses? I’m just going to stay at home,” said Bratt.

The election results show that fear of an NDP government is still relatively strong in Calgary and Bratt said the election’s sole debate had something to do with that.

“If you watched the debate, it was almost like Danielle Smith was the challenger and Rachel Notley was being forced to defend her record, just as she was in 2019,” said Bratt.

“Four years later, if you lost your business, or you lost your job in 2017, I don’t think that’s something that you’re going to going to forget,” said Bratt.

The clear choice between the two parties, with minor parties barely featuring in the campaign, created a rare contrast that resembled a U.S.-style presidential election.

Compare that to Ontario, where voters chose last year between three broadly centrist parties that were mostly distinguished by the personality of the party leader. Turnout reached a record low with 43.5 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot as Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives swept to a new majority.

Although polarization may boost turnout during the election, Bratt said it will create some problems when the government’s new mandate starts. The UCP will have no cabinet representation from the provincial capital as the party was completely shut out of Edmonton.

“It will be a rural-dominated caucus in an urban province and when we talk about polarization, the rural-urban divide is right at the top of that list,” said Bratt.