QUEBEC — Faced with a blunt “no can do,” the minister responsible for democratic institutions has retreated from plans to ask Quebec’s electoral officials to examine what personal data political parties may be using to plot strategy.
With Quebec’s electoral officials saying they do not have the required powers to conduct such a probe, Kathleen Weil said Thursday that the government is going back to the drawing board to find new ways to investigate such tactics.
She said she is looking for the right “vehicle,” which will be independent, neutral and credible enough to do the work.
“I’m determined to find the right way,” Weil told reporters. “I personally want it to be really iron-clad and not allow for any discretion. We want somebody who is an expert.”
Weil was unable to say whether an existing government institution would suffice.
Weil’s step back came a day after she held a news conference to announce the Liberals would be presenting a motion to the National Assembly asking Quebec’s chief electoral officer (the Directeur général des élections) to verify the voter data collection methods of political parties.
The chief electoral office responded saying it does not have such powers even if it has been asking the government for them for the last six years.
“It is not foreseen in the current laws,” said Alexandra Reny, a media relations official in the electoral office.
Taken aback, Weil beat a hasty retreat Thursday, scrapping plans to present such a motion.
The issue of personal data being used for political tracking and strategy roared to life last week with reports that U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, which harvested private information from Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users for the campaign.
Canada’s privacy watchdog, Daniel Therrien, has launched an investigation to see if Cambridge Analytica’s tentacles reached as far as Canada.
Last week, Premier Philippe Couillard waded in, saying he suspects the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), his current main political rival, and Québec solidaire (QS) of having hired firms to process personal data siphoned off social media.
Both parties have denied the accusations. While QS MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tried this week to present his own motion on the issue, CAQ leader François Legault said he is not opposed to having the chief electoral office look into the matter.
Under existing law, it is entirely possible parties could be using data to gather information on voters, but nobody really knows if it is happening.
Weil said at a news conference on Thursday that legislation to deal with the issue would be ideal, but that can be a long process. Some kind of independent investigation of party practices would be speedier, she said.
All the parties say they would like this question cleared up before the province plunges into the fall election campaign leading to the Oct. 1 vote.
“It’s the use of personal data without the person’s consent that poses the main problem,” Weil said. “That’s what worries voters.”
Weil said she plans to act quickly. With the legislature shut down next week for Easter, she said she will have something to announce when the house reconvenes April 10.
Answering a question in the legislature, Weil said while she respects QS’s attempts to pass a motion, the way it was worded left too much discretionary power in the hands of the parties.
“We want a more global solution,” Weil said. “We want to act swiftly and find the right vehicle. A few days in politics is not very long.”
But Nadeau-Dubois described the situation as a shambles, and said the longer the government drags its feet on what is happening, the more doubts are raised about whether it has something to hide.
“We have a government that created doubt (about party practices), and now refuses to dissipate it and wants to evade the issue by talking about process,” Nadeau-Dubois said.
Véronique Hivon, the deputy leader of the Parti Québécois said what’s needed is a strong political will to deal with the issue.
“The possibility of that happening is almost nil,” Hivon said.