Canada’s chief electoral officer is planning talks this fall with federal parties to discuss riding nomination races — which may have been targeted for manipulation on at least one occasion by Beijing.
In his first report on foreign interference, former governor general David Johnston found “well-grounded suspicion” that the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Toronto was behind irregularities with Han Dong’s 2019 federal Liberal nomination victory.
Dong had no knowledge of the irregularities, according to the report.
Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault may follow those talks with recommendations to amend the Canada Elections Act, the non-partisan agency said.
While the final decision on amending laws rests with Parliament, current and former politicians say Elections Canada should provide more oversight over riding nominations, which have developed a freewheeling reputation.
“It would be important in the context of recent allegations of foreign meddling that there be additional measures in place,” said Green Party Deputy Leader Jonathan Pedneault.
“We would love to see Elections Canada play a larger role.”
Having the independent elections agency oversee vetting would lead to much more “credibility,” said Pedneault.
Elections Canada monitors candidate spending but the agency’s current role in nominations is limited and political parties have almost complete control over how the races are run.
Sometimes, lax rules can leave the races open to exploitation, including from foreign actors looking to back candidates sympathetic to their causes.
Other times, parties may appoint candidates, or hold contests where they rally members to support a specific candidate.
Would more oversight make contests ‘cleaner’?
Controversy often flares in nomination races. The most recent example erupted in the southwestern Ontario riding of Oxford during the Conservative nomination race for the upcoming June 19 byelection.
One of the candidates, Woodstock city-county Coun. Deb Tait, accused the party of favouring her rival Arpan Khanna, who won the nomination.
Tait is the daughter of former Conservative MP Dave MacKenzie, who is now backing David Hilderley, the Liberal candidate in Oxford.
“The nomination process was fair and in accordance with our rules,” said Sarah Fischer, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada, in a statement to CBC News.
“Mr. Khanna is our candidate because he won the support of the membership by a large margin.”
Tait alleges she didn’t receive the membership list in a timely fashion and suggests the party didn’t thoroughly check voter identification.
“I was concerned right from the get-go that the whole thing had been fixed,” Tait said.
Tait is calling for Elections Canada to step in and provide more oversight to make sure what she experienced doesn’t happen again.
“It makes it cleaner,” she said. “What has gone on here should not go on in any other riding.”
Tait said she supports parties appointing candidates but doesn’t think they should be allowed control over the nomination race rules because it creates an opening to give an advantage to a specific candidate.
No ‘hard and fast rule’
Sheila Copps, a former long-time Liberal MP and deputy prime minister, also said she believes Elections Canada needs a role in nomination races. Copps tried to appeal a nomination contest she lost in 2004, alleging the party favoured her opponent.
Copps said she was advised by her lawyer that if she pursued her challenge, she would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement and pay all lawyers’ fees if she was defeated.
“It hurt,” Copps said. “I was always in the party and it was really close to me.”
Copps said Elections Canada should run nomination appeals, instead of internal party processes.
“It’s going to allow another level of scrutiny and another level of equilibrium,” she said.
Others are concerned about Elections Canada taking control away from parties, which are treated traditionally as private groups.
“I, personally, get a little uncomfortable with the idea of the state reaching into civil society and helping organize and regulate it,” said Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor of political science at Western University in London, Ont.
De Clercy, the incoming Jarislowsky Chair in Trust and Political Leadership at Trent University, said citizens can judge a party based on the quality of its own internal democracy.
She said parties have an incentive to show that they can run fair, consistent, transparent and democratic nominations.
If they don’t, she said, formal elections and the media can provide checks on the parties.
“It isn’t a hard and fast rule that parties have to act democratically in their nomination processes in order to field eligible candidates,” de Clercy said.
“It’s just [that] we expect as citizens, it just seems normal and logistical to us that a party that would want to offer itself to run a competent democracy would have competent democracy within its own ranks.”