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Han Dong, right, arrives to appear as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on April 2.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Of the many allegations to surface before the public inquiry, led by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, on foreign interference in Canadian elections, perhaps the most troubling is the suggestion that China intervened, during the 2019 campaign, to secure the nomination of Han Dong as the Liberal candidate in the riding of Don Valley North.

The nomination race was by all accounts very close. The riding, on the other hand, is one of the safest Liberal ridings in the country. Whoever won the nomination was almost sure to enter Parliament.

In such a close race, at a nomination meeting described as “chaotic,” the addition of a busload or two of Chinese high-school students – the buses, according to intelligence reports, arranged and paid for by China, the students instructed that they or their family back home might face “consequences” if they did not show up to vote for Mr. Dong – might well have been enough to tip the balance.

Whether China was in fact involved is obviously a matter of great concern, as is the question of what Mr. Dong knew about it – and why no one, inside the party or out, told of the allegations, chose to do or say anything about it.

That is only one part of the scandal, however. That China will attempt to interfere in our elections is a given. That the institutions and processes we depend on to detect and prevent such interference are in need of repair is something on which there is also much agreement. That the Liberals may have chosen to look the other way at it all is at least a subject of current controversy.

Rather less attention has focused on another issue: how easy we have made it to interfere in Canada’s elections. I don’t mean directly – the process by which votes are cast and counted in our elections is among the most secure in the world, and subject to stringent regulatory oversight – but indirectly, via the parties, whose internal elections are among the least secure in the world, and subject to virtually no oversight whatsoever.

This is perhaps the greater scandal, inasmuch as none of it is new, or a secret. It does not take a confidential intelligence report to know that party nomination races are a mess. It has been common knowledge for decades. Consider the Don Valley North example. Never mind whether China was involved, or who hired the buses. How was it even possible for a bunch of visiting foreign high-school students to participate in choosing a candidate for a Canadian political party?

To vote in a federal election, you have to be at least 18 years of age, a citizen of Canada, and a resident of the riding in which you cast your vote. To vote in a Liberal Party nomination race, you only have to be 14 years of age. You do not have to be a citizen. You don’t even have to be a member of the party, or not of any standing: It’s enough that you signed up before the “cut-off,” typically days before the vote.

Other parties are scarcely better: The Conservatives and NDP at least require that voters in their elections be citizens, but otherwise are as lax as the Liberals. And in every party, nominations are run on the same anarchic lines, often decided by busloads of “instant members,” recruited and (it is often suspected) paid for by party power brokers, who mysteriously appear at the last minute. It’s called “stacking the meeting,” and it’s as Canadian as butter tarts.

That’s when the nomination race is actually a race, and has not been decided beforehand by the party. Sometimes this is overt: Rather than allow the members of the local riding association to decide who should represent them in the election, a candidate – often the incumbent MP, sometimes a “parachute candidate” with no previous attachment to the riding – is simply appointed by the party leadership.

According to research by the Samara Centre for Democracy, more than half the candidates (53 per cent) in the 2019 election were selected in this way: The proportion of appointees ranged from 37 per cent for the NDP to 100 per cent of Bloc Québécois candidates.

But direct appointment is just one of the ways in which party leaders can tip the scales in favour of their chosen candidates. In many ridings, the choice is so clear that, even where the contest is open in theory, only one candidate actually enters. According to Samara, that describes two-thirds of nomination races in 2019.

All told, the centre finds, “of the more than 6,600 election candidates chosen by Canada’s major federal parties over the five general elections from 2004 to 2015, only 17 per cent arrived there through a competitive nomination race.” In 2019 it was 14 per cent.

But even in competitive races, the party’s influence can be oppressive. Races are often called without warning, and decided in great haste – two or three weeks at most – offering little chance for those outside the circle of favour to organize. The rules are typically opaque, unpredictable and subject to change.

Former members of Parliament interviewed by Samara for its 2014 study,Tragedy in the Commons,” reported an overwhelming sense of bewilderment about the nomination process, a feeling of being manipulated by unseen forces. MPs, the study’s authors write, “spent a great deal of time describing how painful and mystifying they found this particular aspect of their entry into politics.”

They “struggled to articulate how nominations functioned, citing a lack of clarity in time lines, sources of decision making and the application of the rules. Procedures varied widely from riding to riding, and the process appeared subject to a host of idiosyncrasies, giving the impression that the party’s, rather than the people’s, favoured candidate was selected.”

And this was how the winners assessed it! (“We cringe to imagine what those who were less successful might say.”) But then, this was merely their introduction to the brutalization they were to experience later, as elected MPs – their first taste, as the Samara authors write, of “the bullying and controlling behaviour of their parties.”

That’s partly a consequence of how they were nominated: Not only are MPs often the hand-picked choice of the leader, but no candidate, incumbent or otherwise, can run without the leader’s signature on his nomination papers. They are at the leader’s mercy, utterly dependent on his or her favour not only for any chance of advancement, but even to hold on to what they have.

And yet the same does not apply in reverse. While members of caucus are, effectively, chosen by the leader, they have little or no say in how the leader is chosen. Canadian party leaders, federal and provincial, are elected, not by the caucus they will lead, but by a vote of the members – or rather, not the existing members, but the membership as expanded and distorted by the frantic membership sales drives the parties call leadership races.

You think nomination races are a mess? Leadership races are even worse. It isn’t enough that they deliver the party into the hands of a leader who is, from that day forward, unaccountable to anyone, or that they expose the party to takeover by organized groups with no interest in, or even with hostility to, the party’s welfare. (The last Liberal leadership race did not even require voters to join the party.)

They are also frequently plagued by allegations of corruption. If the depleted cemeteries and busloads of elderly drunks of lore are no longer a factor, delegate selection meetings having been replaced by one-member-one-vote, the potential for online shenanigans has taken their place.

As, of late, has foreign interference. Among the intelligence reports in the possession of Justice Hogue are those suggesting China and India attempted to influence the 2022 Conservative leadership race through the bulk purchases of party memberships. (Conservative officials deny any possibility of this, but then Liberal officials said the same thing about Don Valley North.)

And the worst part? Most of this is perfectly legal. Other than some comparatively recent limitations on fundraising, political parties are largely exempt from government regulation. Mostly they are left to their own vices.

As Justice Hogue writes in her interim report, “regulating nomination processes is the sole responsibility of political parties.” Faced with reports of irregularities in Don Valley North, neither the “panel of five” (a committee of senior bureaucrats responsible for alerting the public to threats to election integrity”) nor the Chief Electoral Officer felt it was their place to intervene.

This cannot continue. As Justice Hogue writes, the Don Valley North incident shows “the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic processes.” As self-regulators, all the parties, not just the Liberals, have failed: “the eligibility criteria for voting in nomination contests do not seem very stringent, and the control measures in place do not seem very robust.”

Should her final report make any proposal to correct this failure, however, it is sure to raise a storm of opposition. Wherever and whenever it is proposed to regulate party behaviour in the slightest – from how they choose their leaders to how they raise their funds to how the leaders’ debates are organized – the same objection is raised: Political parties are private organizations. How they conduct their affairs is nobody’s business but their own. The state has no place in the backrooms of the nation.

This is nonsense. Corporations are private organizations, too, but I don’t notice the parties are in any great haste to relieve them of all state supervision. Neither do they seem to object to regulations that serve their interests, from the tax credit for political donations to the reimbursement of campaign expenses out of public funds to the 1972 law that first required candidates to obtain the approval of the party leader. (Before then the ballots did not even list a candidate’s party affiliation.)

More to the point: Parties are not wholly private organizations. They are not like some chess club, with no influence on public events, and whose only desire is to be left alone. Their sole purpose is to seek and wield coercive power over the rest of us. How they go about it is therefore a matter of vital public concern, and regulation in the public interest – at the least, transparency – is entirely justified.

Michael Kinsley’s immortal law seems peculiarly apt: The scandal’s not what’s illegal. The scandal’s what’s legal.

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