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Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.
Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.

OPINION

O’Leary taught us (seriously) to confront unpleasant truths about Canadian politics Add to ...

The reflex was to laugh off Kevin O’Leary’s recent complaint of “widespread vote rigging” in the Conservative leadership contest.

When the President of the United States is vilifying minority groups with false claims of electoral fraud, there is healthy skepticism about any such allegation – not least one that, when it emerged, was itself directed toward organizers in immigrant communities. And it was inviting to assume that Mr. O’Leary, a loudmouth reality-TV entrepreneur, was pre-emptively making excuses for not being able to waltz in and take the Tories’ helm.

But for his willingness to sound the alarm, if for no other reason, Canadians should be glad Mr. O’Leary is in the race. Not only did it lead to disqualification of more than 1,300 Conservative memberships purchased through a pair of IP addresses – it also should force us to confront unpleasant truths about how politics works in this country.

Read more: Mud thrown during the Conservative spring cleaning

In the way parties choose leaders and candidates, if not in general elections, we have a serious problem with cheating that not infrequently crosses the line into outright fraud.

Talk to people who have worked on leadership or local nomination campaigns, and you will not find much surprise at the sorts of shenanigans the Conservatives have identified. You may well hear tales of much worse – fake ballots turning up at voting locations, ballot boxes stuffed, voting under false identities. Veteran Conservative and Liberal organizers, speaking this week on a background basis, attested that in both their parties there are operatives with reputations for dodgy practices who market themselves to campaigns as able to provide thousands of votes, the fewer questions asked the better.

Buying party memberships for people who wouldn’t care to buy them for themselves, in violation of rules set by the party, is at the low end of the spectrum – so much so that rather than respond with shock to revelations of it happening in the Conservative race, allegedly by organizers for Maxime Bernier, pundits and political insiders dismissed it as a well-established part of the political game. Remember that time Brian Mulroney rounded up homeless old men living at a Montreal mission to help knock off Joe Clark? This is kids’ stuff! Parties’ officials are prone to privately making similar ever-been-thus excuses while turning blind eyes. Usually, they’re not dying to dirty the reputation of potential leaders or flag-bearers. Sometimes, they’re eager to collect as many membership fees as possible, whoever’s paying.

When allegations involve organizers within immigrant communities, as now, they’re wary of alienating broader constituencies and feeding prejudices.

To its credit, Stephen Harper’s party made an unusual effort to keep things clean this time around, by requiring new recruits to pay their own way by credit card or cheque. That ostensibly prevented bulk purchases, until now always done with wads of untraceable cash. Then, organizers found a way around the new rules: the use of prepaid credit cards, bought in large numbers and used to pay others’ fees.

In the process, they demonstrated the difficulty for parties in policing themselves. Rumours are swirling that there are many more memberships purchased in similar fashion, possibly on behalf of people who don’t know they’re signing up at all. Whatever treachery is afoot, it won’t be easy for the party to catch, in between this coming week’s membership deadline – when campaigns will likely drop tens of thousands of memberships they’ve been sitting on – and the distribution of ballots roughly a month later, which could conceivably be collected by organizers and sent in en masse.

To some Conservative insiders, it all suggests the Liberals were on to something when they went to a comparatively open free-membership system before their past leadership, although Justin Trudeau’s cakewalk means that approach hasn’t really been tested yet. The odd one muses about going further still, by moving to a more formalized process (comparable to U.S. primaries) overseen by Elections Canada.

There are others – in all parties – who argue that theirs are essentially private clubs, whose problems are nobody’s but their own.

But in a country where federal elections are usually fought between three major parties, and some provincial ones fewer than that, public stake in leaderships can’t be so easily dismissed. The same goes for local nominations, especially given the many ridings in which a dominant party’s candidate selections effectively determine who will serve in Parliament. And the more easily the system is gamed, the bigger the barriers to entry for those who want to participate honestly.

It would be a stretch to attach such noble concerns to Mr. O’Leary, who blew the whistle against the candidate generally perceived to be alongside him at the front of the Conservative leadership pack.

But the storyline put out by his campaign – that as a newcomer to the system he was personally offended by what he saw – is not exactly unfathomable. Those inclined to make their peace and make excuses for how it functions could usefully imagine it through fresh eyes.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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