Tag Archives: Canada

Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

Continue reading Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

Military Industrial Boondoggle

Today in my defence policy course my students and I shall be spending some time discussing defence procurement. As luck would have it, as I was munching on my morning bread and marmalade, a highly relevant article swan into view in the op-ed page of my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, after which I then discovered a new US report on a similar topic.

The Citizen article concerns Canada’s shockingly badly managed naval shipbuilding program. Written by a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Defence, Alan Williams, the article declares that ‘Canada’s Warship Program is Sinking Fast.’ In this Williams reports that Canada’s plan to build 15 new surface combatants originally had

an estimated cost of $26 billion, with deliveries to begin in the early 2020s. Today, the forecasted costs to build these ships is far beyond that. Deliveries are to start in the early 2030s, a decade later than scheduled … [The Parliamentary Budget Office] estimates that it will cost $77.3 billion … to maintain these ships over their expected total life-cycle would amount to an additional $208 billion, for a total life-cycle cost of $286 billion. In comparison, the funds available in DND’s [Department of National Defence] budget over the next 30 years to acquire and maintain its capital goods for the army, navy and air force combined is only $240 billion. This program alone would bankrupt the department’s capital and maintenance accounts for the next 30 years.

Despite this, DND insists that, ‘It will neither entertain a new design nor undertake a new procurement process.’ Williams adds that the United States is building very similar ships for about one-third of the price of the Canadian ones, and also that DND rejected an offer by the Italian company Fincantieri to build the ships in Canada ‘at a fixed cost of $30 billion’, less than half what DND is now paying. ‘As currently planned, these ships will likely never be built. They are simply unaffordable,’ concludes Williams.

But could the government cancel such a project after throwing so much money at it? That’s where the US report comes in. Published by the American Enterprise Institute, and entitled The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, the report mentions how the shift in priorities during the War on Terror led the USA to cancel a whole series of projects originally designed for fighting wars of a different type. You can see the details in this chart, showing cancelled projects from 2002 to 2012 alone.

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Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

The Roman poet Juvenal was a curmudgeonly old sod. Rome was going to the dogs, he thought. Things were better in the good old days, when men were men, people had a sense of duty, and there was an all round understanding of the importance of public morality. Foreigners, women, homosexuals – you mention it, Juvenal disliked it (one has to wonder if it’s still permissible to get students to read him nowadays). He also wasn’t too fond of soldiers, and in his final (incomplete) satire complained that it was impossible to get redress against them. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’) he asked, and never has a more pertinent question be posed.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fight against alleged Russian disinformation, electoral ‘meddling’, and so on, has led to the creation of a large and well-funded disinformation industry devoted to controlling what the rest of us can read and hear, in accordance with the industry’s own understanding of reality. Canada, where I live, now has its own branch of the industry in the form of an organization called Disinfowatch, which is reported to be funded by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the US government.

So, who watches Disinfowatch?

Continue reading WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

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Toronto for Putin!

The more Russophile elements of the online universe are up in arms today about the latest attempt to smear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as some sort of Kremlin agent. This follows an article in the New York Times describing how as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endeavoured to find a ‘sister city’ in the Soviet Union, eventually signing a twinning agreement with the town of Yaroslavl. No matter that the twinning program in question was approved by no less a person than Republic president Ronald Reagan, there was obviously something dodgy about it, the Times implies. Vote for Bernie at your peril!

This kind of Russia-related scaremongering has become commonplace in the United States since late 2016, when the Democratic Party decided to make Russia the central point of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump. Fortunately, we’ve been relatively free of it up here in the frozen north, but only relatively. For every now and again somebody pops out of the woodwork to strike fear in Canadians about their Arctic neighbour, Russia.

And so it was that on Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Jonathan Vance, told a conference in Ottawa that, ‘the most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia’. Others piled on. Lieutenant General Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, remarked that ‘Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America’. And American writer Frederick Kagan, invited to Ottawa for who knows what reason, told the conference that, ‘We are collectively … standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on.’

I’ve somehow missed the fact that my country is at war. I really ought to wake up. For while we sleep, the Russians are taking us over. They’ve even managed to capture our largest city.  Or at least, that’s what the Toronto Sun thinks, judging by an article published yesterday, headlined ‘Is Toronto under the sway of Russian propaganda?’ Clearly, the Sun wants its readers to think that the answer is yes. Author Marcus Kolga who, on behalf of the Baltic diaspora, has undertaken heroic efforts to enlighten Canadians about the Russian threat, laments that ‘the City of Toronto Parks department cynically rejected a proposal’ to rename a ‘small street inside Earl Bales park’ after murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. Note how they didn’t just reject this proposal, they rejected it ‘cynically’. What moral turpitude has infected our municipal leaders!

Apparently there was an online public consultation about the renaming, and it would appear that it didn’t go too well for the proposal. Kolga suspects Kremlin manipulation of the results. ‘It would not have taken much effort by staff at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the St. Petersburg troll factory, to undertake such an effort,’ he says. Forget about the war in Syria and the like. Toronto Street names are clearly top priority back in Russia.

The failure to honour Nemtsov is the least of our problems, though. Even more exasperating from Kolga’s point of view is the atrocious fact that last month Toronto city council allowed the Russian consulate to use the foyer of city hall to put up an exhibition about the Second World War. This included displays on outrageous topics such as ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, ‘The Siege of Leningrad’, and ‘The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue.’ City council had allowed the Russian consulate ‘to post historical propaganda posters’, complained Kolga on Twitter, linking to a message from the consulate which included the following shocking example.

toronto

It’s ‘outrageous’ that this happened, said Kolga on Twitter. I’m sure, dear readers, that you share his outrage. This cannot be tolerated. As Kolga said in the Toronto Sun:

It is difficult to comprehend how the Nemtsov street naming project … was rejected while a Russian Government initiated and sponsored historical propaganda exhibit … was allowed to proceed. … The Mayor and Council should immediately revisit the decision to reject the naming of a street … in honour of this great Russian hero … The City must immediately review policies and reject all attempts by malign foreign states to hijack public spaces in our city to advance their own false narratives in order to manipulate our citizens.

God forbid that Torontonians learn about the Second World War or the Holocaust. They might, for instance, conclude that Baltic collaborators were on the wrong side of history. We must prevent this ‘malign’ attempt to ‘manipulate our citizens’. But Kolga got one thing wrong. It isn’t ‘difficult to comprehend’ how this happened. The answer is obvious. Toronto is ‘under the sway of the Kremlin.’ What other answer could there be?

Russians for Wexit

Those infernal Russians are spreading their interfering tentacles wider and wider. At least, that’s what the Washington Post would have us believe, with a screeching headline this week: ‘Russia has turned its interfering attentions to Africa’. Meanwhile, the long-running saga of alleged Russian interference in Brexit is making news due to a refusal by the British government to release a report on the topic. Buzzfeed says that anonymous sources within British intelligence told it that the report will say that no evidence was found of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, But do you trust anonymous Buzzfeed sources? We shall have to wait and see.

But if there are some doubts about Russia’s role in Brexit, we now have evidence of something just as bad, and for Canadians like me, closer to home  – Russian interference in Wexit.

WEXIT??? What’s Wexit, you ask. As well you might. For no doubt by now you’re more than a little confused.

confused

Continue reading Russians for Wexit

Trudeau’s Jeeps in action

‘An election is no time to discuss serious issues,’ former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell notoriously said. That, of course, is one of the reasons we supposedly value a free press – to hold politicians to account and make sure that they have to talk about what really matters. So given that we have a general election campaign going on at the moment, you’d imagine that when a major international news story breaks, and there’s shown to be a Canadian connection, our press would be on it in a flash. But for whatever reason that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A couple of days ago, news broke that the Houthi forces in Yemen had claimed to have inflicted a major defeat on Saudi forces near the southern Saudi of Najran. Subsequently, the Houthis released videos apparently proving their case. These showed large numbers of dead and captured Saudi troops as well as a significant amount of destroyed and captured armoured vehicles. That much attracted the attention of the our press, but it somehow failed to note that a lot of the vehicles were in fact Canadian.

Back in 2014, the Harper government struck a $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi government. After this deal came in for public criticism, Harper’s successor as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said that there was nothing to worry about, as the contract was only for ‘jeeps’. That, of course, was nonsense, as this drawing from the National Post newspaper makes clear.

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For comparison, here’s a picture of one of the Saudi vehicles captured by the Houthis in the recent battle:

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My not-entirely forgotten military vehicle recognition training teaches me to look for things like hatches and wheels. So let’s do that. Note the position of the hatch in the photo, and compare it to the drawing above. Note also the positioning of the wheels of the captured vehicle – there’s a small gap between the front two, a large one between the middle two, and then a very small one between the wheels at the back. Then compare that to the drawing. I don’t know about you, but the two look pretty similar to me. I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I’d say that it seems that the Houthis now have a least one Canadian-built LAV in their possession.

Here’s some more evidence – a rather blurry photograph from the CBC, showing a Saudi-purchased Canadian LAV. The key item is the triangular piece of metal with two holes in it, which you can see in the bottom right of the vehicle.

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Now compare that to this picture of one of the Saudi vehicles destroyed in the recent Houthi offensive. Look familiar??

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Sadly, this isn’t the least of it. Those Canadian LAVs seem to have had a rather bad day, as you can see below:

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Why does this matter?

The contract with the Saudis has been controversial from the moment it was first signed, with various activists in Canada complaining that we should not be selling weapons to a country with such a bad human rights record. The possibility that the armoured vehicles might be used in Yemen has also been raised as a reason why the contract should be cancelled. At one point it looked as if the Liberal government was having some pangs of conscience, and it announced that Global Affairs Canada (GAC), under the command of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, would review the contract to see whether it should be terminated.  A spokesman for GAC declared that,

Canada does not export items destined for Yemen or that we suspect might be used in Yemen due to the impact on regional stability and security. Careful attention is paid to the potential for the diversion of Canadian exports to the conflict in Yemen. … If there is evidence that Canadian arms are being misused or have been diverted, Minister Freeland will suspend those export permits while an investigation proceeds, as she has done in the past.

Despite some compelling evidence that Canadian equipment had indeed been diverted to the war in Yemen, nothing ever came of that promise, however. Sales of Canadian military equipment to Saudi Arabia have continued apace and the government ‘review’ has disappeared without trace. Meanwhile, Canadian arms continue to fuel the war in Yemen, and as the pictures above show are now actually in the hands of both sides of the conflict!!

If the Canadian government publicly preached hard-headed realism, I wouldn’t mind so much. If our politicians just said, ‘business is business’, or ‘we back Saudi Arabia because we want to fight Iran’, or something like that, it would at least have the virtue of brutal honesty. But that isn’t how our politicians talk. Rather, Canadian foreign policy discourse is nothing if not an exercise in holy-than-thou sanctimonious moralizing. Yet when it comes to an opportunity to make some money, all that goes out of the window.

So why aren’t our media on this? As there’s an election going on, now’s the time to ask the politicians some hard questions. Someone needs to put Trudeau and Freeland on the spot, and get them to give them an answer about what they intend to do about arms sales to Saudi Arabia given the new evidence which has come to light. And someone needs to tackle opposition politicians about it too. Somehow, though, I doubt that they will. Some things are too serious to talk about at election time. There’s just no way to discuss them without looking bad.

Meddling schmeddling

You may have missed it in the all the excitement around the world, but Canada has a general election coming up in October. As you know, elections equal Russian meddling. They’re when our Eastern friends pull out all their computer bots, fire up their trolls, and start spreading shedloads of disinformation in order to confuse and disorientate us, so that we lose our faith in democracy  and then we … we … well I’m not sure what we’re meant to do then; the ultimate aim of it all rather defeats me. We vote for one party which is 100% anti-Russian rather than for another party which is 100% anti-Russian? Is that the point? Because here in Canada, that’s basically the choice on offer. Those pesky Russkies can confuse us all they like with their dezinformatziia, active measures, and maskirovka, but at the end of the day we’re still going to end up electing somebody determined to prove that he or she is more anti-Russian that the next guy or girl. Meddling, schmeddling – it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to the result.

None of this stops the fearmongers, however, and so it was that yesterday the Canadian press was happily quoting a new report from the University of Calgary, saying that, ‘Russia could meddle in Canada’s election due to “growing interest” in Arctic’. Now, I’ve been saying for a while now that these worries are exaggerated, but for some reason ‘Professor at University of Ottawa says it’s a load of nonsense’ doesn’t generate any headlines, whereas ‘part-time lecturer in Calgary says it’s so’ is national news. Well, so be it. We all know that the press has its biases. So rather than rely on the media, I thought I’d better check out what the report in question actually has to say, and it turns out that it’s not quite what you’d imagine, at least not entirely.

The report is written by one Sergey Sukhankin who is said to be ‘a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation’ in Washington DC, and to be currently ‘teaching at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University (Edmonton)’. According to his Linkedin page, he has a 3 month contract to teach a single course at the former, and a 9 month contract as a lecturer in the latter. He’s also listed as an ‘Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv).’ Anyway, he starts off his report encouragingly enough by declaring that he aims ‘to give a more balanced and nuanced picture of the situation, particularly with regard to Canada’, and it is a ‘tactical error … to label as disinformation or propaganda every news item emanating from Russia. This creates the perception of a Russian disinformation machine that is much more powerful than it really is.’ Personally, I would say that it’s not a ‘tactical error’, it’s just plain wrong, but at least Sukhankin isn’t trying to overdo things. But this praiseworthy restraint doesn’t mean that he wants us to let down our guard. No, he says, ‘the peril is real’, ‘the West … must stick to confronting the Kremlin’, and (and this is the bit which got the headlines):

The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada. This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare … Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election.

There’s a leap of logic here which I must admit I failed to understand. Why does ‘competition’ in the Arctic ‘mean’ that Canada ‘can anticipate escalations in information warfare’, let alone ‘meddling’ in the election? Why does the one necessarily lead to the other? I don’t see it.  It would only make sense if the second part (the meddling) helped achieve some objectives in the first part (competition in the Arctic) but Sukhankin doesn’t show how they would. He just connects two unconnected things. But we’ll get back to the Arctic a little later. For now, let’s return to the report.

This essentially has two parts. The first is a fairly standard summary of the general argument that Russia is engaged in some sort of information war designed to undermine the West from within. It makes reference to the normal vocabulary of Soviet active measures and the like, as well as to the conventional list of sources, such as Peter Pomerantseve, Michael Weiss, and Edward Lucas (not the most reliable types in my opinion). In short, it doesn’t add anything new. By contrast, the second part, which specifically focuses on alleged Russian information operations against Canada, is much more interesting.

Russian disinformation about Canada, says Sukhankin, is centred on four themes:

  1. ‘Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
  2. ‘Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region’.
  3. ‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’.
  4. ‘Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral Western values.’

The extent to which these could all be called ‘disinformation’ is debatable (‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’ doesn’t seem entirely inaccurate to me). But the key point Sukhankin makes is that these themes reflect the Russian government’s own internal, domestic political priorities – i.e. its desire to convince its own citizens that its policies are right, by means of discrediting others. In general, says Sukhankin, Russian propaganda targets ‘the following audiences, prioritized from the greatest to the smallest’.

  • The Russian domestic audience
  • The post-Soviet area (including the russophones in the three Baltic States)
  • The Balkans and east-central Europe
  • Western and southern Europe
  • The U.S.
  • The rest of the world

Canada, therefore, falls into the lowest priority of targets. This reflects the fact that, as Sukhankin says, ‘Russians don’t see Canada as a fully independent political actor’. To be frank, we’re not high on Russia’s information war hitlist. The Russian government doesn’t care that much about us, and it cares even less about our internal politics. Consequently, says Sukhankin, while the Russian media and social media do publish anti-Canadian stories, the point of them isn’t to ‘meddle’ in Canadian internal affairs. Rather, he says, in what to me is the most crucial statement in his report:

Russia’s anti-Canadian propaganda, which still plays a marginal part compared to other theatres, is primarily tailored for domestic Russian consumption – it is not designed for a Canadian audience. [my underlining]

Here, therefore, we run into a huge problem. We’re told to fear the genuine ‘peril’ of Russian disinformation, and Russian ‘meddling’ in Canada’s election, but we’re also told that Russia doesn’t actually care very much about Canadian internal affairs and that in any case Russian disinformation isn’t targeted at Canadians. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways. If it’s not targeted at Canadians, then it doesn’t constitute meddling, interference, or anything else of the sort. The logical conclusion of Sukhankin’s analysis is that we should calm down a little and stop worrying so much.

That, however, would not fit with the current zeitgeist. Although his logic points him in one direction, Sukhankin apparently feels a desperate need to nonetheless throw in something about the dangers of Russian interference in Canadian internal affairs. So all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, and unconnected with anything else, in his final paragraph he suddenly throws in a quotation from the head of that most neutral of trustworthy academic sources, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alexandra Chiczij, saying that, ‘The Kramlin’s propaganda machine will increasingly target our country with anti-Canadian fabrications in an attempt to sow discord, conflict, and to undermine our democratic institutions.’ Sukhankin then adds that this might happen ‘during the 2019 Canadian federal election.’ No evidence to support this claim – which is entirely at odds which everything which preceded it – is produced. Why would Russia suddenly become so interested in Canadian internal affairs? Sukhankin thinks he has an answer, ‘from this author’s point of view, Moscow’s next theme could be the Arctic’, he says. But since this is his last paragraph, he doesn’t have time to develop this thought. As I said, it just comes out of the blue.

It’s also rather odd. As I said earlier, it’s not at all clear why interfering in Canada’s election (exactly how, Sukhankin never makes clear) would promote Russia’s interests in the Arctic. But more than that it ignores the nature of Russian-Canadian Arctic politics. In my conversations with both Canadian and Russian officials, the Arctic is always mentioned as a zone of cooperation rather than competition. In an era when Canadian and Russian diplomats barely talk to each other, the Arctic is the one subject they both think it’s actually possible to discuss in a constructive manner. Conversations about how to improve Canada-Russia relations generally take the form of something like, ‘Let’s not aim too high. Let’s just take little steps, and focus on areas where agreement is possible, especially the Arctic’. To pick on the Arctic as the subject likely to provoke Russia (for purposes unknown) to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s oncoming election (by means and to effect unknown) seems to me to completely misread the situation.

In short, what we have here is a report which tells us that Canada doesn’t matter much to Russians, and that to date Russians have shown little or no interest in targeting Canadian public opinion, let alone interfering in Canadian politics, and yet which nonetheless concludes that we face the ‘peril’ of Moscow ‘potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election’. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.