It’s a common trope that foreign policy is never a ballot question. As riled up as Canadians got about Afghanistan in our recent election, research showed it had little impact on the choices they ultimately made. Bread and butter issues like childcare or concerns about climate change mattered more than how well the prime minister performed — or did not perform — on the world stage.
Or did it? There is growing evidence that for some voters, foreign matters played a key role, not due to personal preference, but foreign interference. And that interference had a direct impact on votes, seat count, and the shape of the 44th Parliament.
It started on August 25, when Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu implied that Conservative leader Erin O’Toole preferred to advance the Conservatives’ “political interests” over our country’s relationship with China. Cong added that his country would oppose “hyping up issues related to China or smearing China.”
Suddenly, Chinese language social media platforms such as WeChat were rife with falsehoods smearing Conservative candidates, even suggesting that the party was planning to ban WeChat itself. Websites attacking Conservative candidates, including Kenny Chiu, Alice Wong and Bob Saroya sprang up. All three held ridings with a heavy concentration of Chinese-Canadian voters, and all three lost their seats to their Liberal opponents.
Why the animus? The Conservative platform included several get-tough measures on China, including barring Huawei from 5G networks, Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese rights violators and counselling universities not to partner with Chinese state-owned enterprises. (In contrast, the Liberals made one lonely mention of fighting “illegal and unacceptable behaviour by authoritarian states,” by nations such as China, Iran and Russia.)