06/23/2016 11:36 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 11:59 EDT

Canadian Politicians Should Stop Meddling In Foreign Votes

Eric Vidal / Reuters
British students hold UK and European Union flags in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Why were non-UK politicians around the world obsessed with weighing in on the Brexit debate? It's unbecoming for politicians to act like the nosy neighbour and get involved in the domestic dispute of a sovereign state.

Unfortunately, Brexit has polarized the population in the UK. It has pitted regions against each other and has caused deep divides within political parties. But what's more troublesome is people that have no right to vote in the referendum aren't just engaged in the debate, they are attempting to influence its outcome. It's doubly worse that many of these people are elected politicians of foreign states.

It was disappointing to observe politicians visit the UK to publicly advocate for one side of the campaign. President Obama's warnings of the consequences of a "leave" vote for the UK paved the way for the Canadian prime minister and his ministers to enter the debate. Threatening adverse trade consequences isn't the way to force a close ally into making a decision that's in the best interests of the the rest of the world.

Politicians are often reminded not to comment on an election campaign in another country.

While it would be acceptable for a politician to say, "a united Europe is good for trade and good for Canada," it's crossing the line to say, "Great Britain staying in the EU is the best outcome for the UK."

On what basis do foreign politicians make these kinds of statements? How possibly would they know what is good for Britain? Would we appreciate foreign dignitaries voicing support for a vote to repeal NAFTA or support a succession referendum in Quebec? In 1967, Canadians were betrayed by French President Charles De Gaulle when he exclaimed while visiting, "Vive le Quebec libre"; an undeniable and unnecessary nod to the Quebec separatist movement.

It is equally as egregious when foreign politicians voice their support for Brexit. This week, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer penned an open letter in the National Post supporting the "leave" side.

Politicians are often reminded not to comment on an election campaign in another country. This wise advice isn't just to avoid offending someone you might have to work with, it's because common decency demands it. A referendum is no different and we've seen they can be just as nasty as general elections.

The Brexit debate belongs within the borders of the UK -- with those that will have to live everyday with the realities of being in or out of the EU. UK politicians, business leaders, unions, new immigrants, British expats, regular citizens, and yes, its central bank governor, have a right and perhaps a duty to discuss openly the risks and benefits of a "leave" vote.

Living in a free state includes respecting those with a view that is different to your.

In fact, Canada thinks it's so important that foreigners mind their own business during general elections that the Canada Elections Act prohibits non-residents from inducing electors to vote or refrain from voting for any particular candidate.

It's fine for us, as Canadians, to form a view, perhaps even a preferred result. But when we try to enter the debate with the intention to influence the outcome, it undermines the democratic process. It's meddling.

We could say, "we'd love for you to remain engaged," but it should end there. If our views truly mattered, we'd be given a vote.

Living in a free state includes respecting those with a view that is different to yours. It is also about recognizing that your right to an opinion doesn't extend to a right to publicly influence a vote in a sovereign nation. Instead, all of us ought to observe these votes from the sidelines and enjoy the beauty of democracy at work. We take for granted living in a part of the world where votes are free and everyone can engage in the process. There are no sham elections and no military leaders or dictators imposing their will.

As Canadians, how we reacted during Brexit was a test run for the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. Many of us failed. While we should attempt to empathize with our neighbours, we shouldn't pretend to grasp fully what it's like to be a UK or U.S. citizen. Our political leaders shouldn't try to publicly influence votes in democratic sovereign states and they should be prepared to work with and support our closest allies regardless of the outcome.

After all, minding our own business is the Canadian thing to do.

Adam Chambers is the former director of policy to Canada's Minister of Finance and holds a JD/MBA from Western University

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