Amidst concerns that Beijing attempted to interfere in Canada’s elections, a new poll shows that more than two-thirds of Canadians believe the Liberal government is “afraid to stand up to China,” and a majority believe that Ottawa has been weak in its response.
The poll , from the Angus Reid Institute, shows that 69 per cent of Canadians believe the government is scared of standing up to China, including 91 per cent of past Conservative voters, 62 per cent of past NDP voters and 46 per cent of those who have voted Liberal.
In recent years, the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has been accused of taking an insufficiently aggressive stance towards Chinese interference in Canadian affairs.
Fifty-three per cent of Canadians believe the government’s response to China in recent years has not been strong enough and that more needs to be done — with 78 per cent of Conservatives holding that view, to just 30 per cent of Liberals.
“The initial response of the federal government (to reports of electoral interference) had been — and I’m paraphrasing obviously — along the lines of ‘This is OK, everything’s fine on it.’ But that is, that’s a narrative line that is likely to ring a little bit hollow when you consider that just over half believe that the alleged interference on the part of Beijing in Canadian elections represents a serious threat to Canadian democracy,” said Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute.
The polling, which was conducted between Feb. 23 and 25, found that two-thirds of Canadians believe that Beijing likely attempted to interfere in Canada’s elections in 2019 and 2021.
Indeed, this was confirmed in a report from a panel of public servants, released publicly on Tuesday. The report concluded that while national security agencies detected foreign attempts to interfere with the 2021 election, ultimately, those attempts did not compromise Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.
Canada-China relations, which have been strained for several years — notably dating to Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and China’s reciprocal seizure of the Two Michaels — started off 2023 on an inauspicious note, with the detection of a Chinese spy balloon that had floated over parts of Canada. The balloon eventually crossed into the United States, and ended up shot down off the North Carolina coast.
While 65 per cent of Canadians believe that China “definitely” or “probably” attempted to interfere in the 2021 election, Conservatives are the most likely, at 50 per cent, to hold a definitive view, while just 24 per cent of Liberals, 23 per cent of New Democrats and 31 per cent of Bloc Québécois voters say so with such certainty.
Just six per cent of all Canadians say they don’t believe China attempted to interfere. There is, Kurl said, a high degree of suspicion towards Beijing.
“We’re talking about alleged interference or meddling in something that really speaks to the most basic and fundamental tenet of Canadian democracy — and that’s elections,” Kurl said.
While a significant majority suspects or believes China’s interference in Canada is happening, the number who believe this constitutes a “serious threat to Canadian democracy” is 53 per cent — 12 percentage points lower. In fact, 23 per cent of Canadians say the issue is being “overblown” by politicians and the media.
Conservatives are most likely to believe it’s a serious threat (72 per cent) followed by Bloc voters (60 per cent), Liberal voters (43 per cent) and New Democrats (39 per cent.) Liberal voters, at 32 per cent, are most likely to believe this is being overblown; 28 per cent of New Democrats agree, as do 22 per cent of Bloc voters.
Just 13 per cent of Conservatives believe the issue is overblown.
So far, politicians have steered away from veering into rhetoric suggesting the election was “stolen” because of Chinese interference. Yet, 23 per cent of Canadians believe that it was. While a not-inconsequential number, far more (50 per cent ) don’t believe that it was.
The view that the election was stolen is strongest among Conservatives (42 per cent), compared to just four per cent of Liberals, five per cent of New Democrats and 35 per cent of Bloc Québécois voters.
“Transparency is going to be so important because any perceived lack of transparency around what did people know, when did they know it and, etc., will run the risk of further eroding trust in elections, democracy,” said Kurl.
When it comes to the belief that Canada has been weak in its response to China, 64 per cent of Canadians say that there has not been enough focus on national security and defence; 88 per cent of Conservative voters, 52 per cent of Liberal voters, 73 per cent of Bloc voters, and 43 per cent of NDP voters hold this view.
“In almost the next breath, you have significant numbers of Canadians who also say, ‘I’m worried about the economic consequences of standing up to China,’” said Kurl. “It’s not just government to government. It’s also consumers.”
Canadians are split on whether they worry about the economic consequences of standing up to China or not — 46 per cent agree and the same number disagree. Interestingly, this has actually dropped in the past year: 58 per cent said they worried about it in January 2022.
“There is a bit of dissonance in that, yes. There’s a desire to take a harder line, but that is very much mixed with anxiety about the consequences to the economic relationship,” said Kurl.
The online survey was done amongst 1,622 Canadian adults between Feb. 23 and 25 who are members of Angus Reid Forum. A probability sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus two per cent, 19 times out of 20.
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