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Public Outcry Over Foreign Influence Should Pave the Way for Much Needed Electoral Reform

Canadian political parties of all stripes have long oscillated between the urge to tap into Canada’s immigrant communities, and an opposing instinct to turn inward and rebuff such influences. In a recent CBC report, April 13, 2021, Liberal MP David McGuinty, head of the National Security Intelligence Committee (NSICOP), said that state actors are looking to join political parties to ‘exert influence’.

 

“What does that mean? That means volunteers signing up to work in campaign offices or campaign settings. It means individuals joining political parties and attending nomination meetings to attempt to exert influence. Usually, the motivation is directed in some way by a foreign government”, McGuinty told CBC News soon after NSICOP’s 2020 report was tabled in the House of Commons.

 

Political parties naturally want to tap into large immigrant communities. In recent Canadian history, all leadership races involve bringing in large numbers of new members from Canada’s ethnic-cultural and new immigrant communities. Contested nomination meetings often involve scores of people from the Chinese, Indian or other South Asian ethnic groups showing up to vote for the candidate from their ethnic group. It is not uncommon for candidates from certain cultural background to receive financial support and campaign volunteers from those communities.

 

It is equally natural to expect that, countries, especially superpowers like Russia and China would want to exert influence on their diaspora. There may be advantage to keeping tight control on their population abroad and even more in potentially swaying Canadian policies towards them via that diaspora. This should come as a shocker to nobody.

 

In a globalized world, influencing another country has become a part of international diplomatic strategy. The US, Canada also have their open “influence operation” targeting countries like Russia, China, and Latin America. Countries like ours have two options to mitigate this “meddling”: one, ban ethnic candidates or new immigrants from participating in the electoral process; two – the preferred option – set up sound and effective policies to minimize these covert operations by state actors. 

The root of the problem is that Canadian political parties have a rather loose definition of what constitutes a party membership. Most parties allow people as young as age 14 to vote in a nomination and a leadership contest. They do not even have to be Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Most political parties allow “signed up on the spot” members to vote in their nomination meetings and leadership race.

 

So, candidates would go to immigrant communities to recruit a large number of people, who may not even speak English or understand party policies or even agree with the party’s positions on any issues. The candidates often have donors pay for these memberships. And on the day of the nomination meeting, people might show up to vote. That is how it works during the leadership race too.

 

There is no rigorous filtering process for substance and merit. It is nothing more than a membership sales exercise. If Canadians are serious about ending foreign influence entryism, then all political parties need to set better guidelines on who can vote in their nomination and leadership race.

 

The arguments are well known. Why should someone who is under the age of 18, and not a Canadian citizen, have a disproportionate weight on deciding the outcome of an eventual representative in that riding? Raising the eligible voting age within a party to at least 18 might help; as would new rules about the minimum length of time a member needs to be a paid-up member before being allowed to vote in a leadership race. 

 

The second big problem is “money”. It costs on average about $1 million to run for party leadership and anywhere between $150,000 to $200,000, including pre-writ spending, to seek election as a Member of Parliament in Canada. The cost of election campaigns has skyrocketed owing to expensive mass media techniques and professionalization of parties while revenues are declining because of falling party memberships.

 

Under current election laws, Canada bans labor unions and corporations from donating to any political parties or candidates. They still can contribute to “third parties” (aka PAC). If an individual organizes a fundraising event that donates a large sum of money to a politician’s campaign, then that politician may feel obliged to repay the favor. It would seem logical that the best way to prevent and mitigate any kind of influence including foreign influence is through public campaign finance.

 

Canada already has some form of public campaign finance. But it removed the very important “per vote subsidy” after 2015. Currently, a maximum of $250,000 of eligible costs is available in re-imbursed expenses for political parties at the federal level. If “all politics are local”, then this is insufficient. Races for public office become susceptible to influence by the well-financed.

 

In most municipalities, mayoral, councillors, and school trustees do not receive a dime of rebate.

It might be a worthwhile idea to introduce election public matching funds: to receive public matching funds, candidates need to receive contributions from a minimum number of “eligible donors” during each reporting period. Public funding should also be available expanded to candidates in nomination races. This is probably the best and most effective way to counter foreign influence. 

 

To grease the wheels of elections in whatever way possible is a form of free speech. But Canada’s sovereignty cannot be undermined by foreign powers. Non-kinetic efforts to influence another nation’s behavior are at least as old as Biblical times but modern mechanism makes them easier and allows results to emerge more quickly. If Canada is to maintain integrity in its democratic system, it should begin swift electoral reform. 

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