What role, if any, will security issues play in the 2019 election campaign?

I constantly hear the accusation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is ‘soft on terrorism’. Where are people getting this idea? How many examples do you want?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on October 7, 2019.

They don’t call Canada ‘the peaceable kingdom’ for nothing. Yes, we have our problems with violence – gun crime is a growing concern for example – but we are blessedly removed from the levels of extreme violence (i.e. terrorism) that beleaguer other countries. We have had less than one terrorist plot, foiled or successful, per year in this land since 9/11. Nations such as Afghanistan see one a day at least.

That being said, there do exist threats to public safety and national security and ones that need monitoring and action to prevent the damage each incur. Even if terrorism is a rare event – we have officially been at medium on a five-point threat scale since 2014 – we still call upon CSIS and the RCMP to investigate such threats and neutralise them. Other pressures on the rightly named national security front include foreign espionage and foreign interference. The latter may actually manifest itself during the election itself, as we saw in Germany, the US, France and the EU in recent years. We may be a middling power but that should not lead to the assumption that nefarious actors cannot do damage to our democratic institutions.

What, if any, impact will these issues have on the upcoming election campaign? It is hard to say. There are so many issues demanding the attention of the voter that it is unlikely national security and public safety will register significantly. The economy, a possible recession, wage gaps, climate issues, worries over immigration, etc. all rank higher in the minds of the average Canadian.

Soft on terrorism?

Nevertheless, the security card could be played by opposition parties to the detriment to the ruling Liberals. I constantly hear the accusation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is ‘soft on terrorism’. Where are people getting this idea? How many examples do you want?

Magnet for criticism

This is the price you pay when you are in power: you are a magnet for criticism of your policies and actions. It is difficult to see the other leaders subject to the same accusations. I suppose the Liberals could bring up the former Harper government’s plans to revoke citizenship for convicted terrorists (whence the “a Canadian is a Canadian”… line) but in light of the Letts saga I am not sure that would be a political point for the Grits.

On the other fronts I could see that the Huawei affair and the continued holding of that company’s CFO pending extradition to the US may arise with connection to concerns over letting a Chinese body run our 5G telecommunications network (but which party would benefit by debating it?). The presence of far right extremists in the Canadian military may also come up, though I doubt it. As for possible foreign influence peddling in the vote we will only hear about that after the fact (although agencies such as CSIS and CSE will be kept busy during the campaign I’d wager).

All in all there is little need perhaps to have national security and public safety take centre stage in the lead-up to October. Even if we are not immune from threats we are in a good space. And that is worth celebrating, irrespective of whom you vote for.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former senior strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS.

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