Improving Election Transparency Focus of New Ontario Bill

Lack of oversight in nomination races targeting the ethnic vote leaves Canada vulnerable to foreign interference, say experts
December 4, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

Political parties could find it tougher to manage nominations with backroom deals if a private member’s bill makes its unlikely way to law.

The bill, which gets its second reading in the Ontario legislature on Dec. 12. aims to curb unsavoury election practices in nomination races, such as the lack of transparency in how candidates are chosen.

Tabled by Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Belinda Karahalios, Bill 150, or Ensuring Transparency and Integrity in Political Party Elections Act, would require the leaders of each registered party to file a report with the province’s chief electoral officer within a week of an internal election and also publish it online.

The report would include information such as the name of the electoral district, registered party, and candidate; the number of those eligible to vote; the number of those who voted; and the number of votes each candidate received.

The bill lists various offences related to voting, such as voting more than once or when not eligible, mismanaging ballot papers, giving false information to an electoral official, or impelling an unqualified person to vote. Penalties include fines of up to $25,000 and two years’ imprisonment.

“Bill 150 will strengthen Ontario’s democracy and bolster grassroots participation in all of Ontario’s political parties. The old boys in the back rooms need to know their gig is up,” Karahalios tweeted after the bill was introduced.

Currently, there are no laws in Ontario prohibiting “undemocratic actions” in internal elections for any party in Ontario, Karahalios said in a news release.

The lack of transparency in nomination races at the provincial and federal level was the subject of a recent article for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute by Kaveh Shahrooz and Brett Byers, who describe it as a “democratic blindspot” in Canadian politics and argue that the way nomination races are conducted “more closely resembles the chaotic electoral system of a banana republic than one in a G7 nation.”

“In practice, the candidates in contested elections rarely rely on ever winning over existing party members, the numbers of which are often very small in the period between elections,” they write.

“Rather, nomination candidates often try to sign up new members to the party. The parties encourage this since new members—even those who have no deep commitment but have signed up simply to participate in the nomination—pay membership fees, can be targeted for fundraising, and may be converted to voters and volunteers during the general election.”

Exacerbating this is that the “process is rarely subject to independent monitoring, allowing parties or savvy candidates to manipulate results.” This could cause many party members, particularly grassroots members, to not want to participate, believing the process to be rigged.

Chasing the Ethnic Vote

Shahrooz and Byers also note that the way candidates in nomination contests seek the ethnic/religious vote often facilitates clashes between different ethnic and religious groups and how this, along with the lack of oversight and accountability, makes “Canada’s politics very vulnerable to interference by hostile foreign powers.”

“For example, in recent years, there have been credible allegations that MPs and MPPs with disturbingly friendly ties to countries like China and Iran have emerged through the parties’ nomination processes,” they write.

“Anecdotally, these candidates are said to have well-mobilized support from people and organizations with ties to those hostile foreign states. And once in office, they play a role in recruiting more candidates friendly to their cause and mobilizing voters to support them.”

According to a report by The Globe and Mail, former Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan was the subject of a warning to the Ontario government due to his close ties to Beijing. Chan was a major fundraiser for his party and an influential figure in the Chinese community. He has filed a lawsuit against the Globe for the allegation.  In August, Chan was a keynote speaker at a rally in Markham, Ont., that opposed the protests in Hong Kong. He defended the crackdown on demonstrators, saying “we support Hong Kong’s police strictly handling unrest.”

During the Liberal candidacy contest for the 2015 federal election, Geng Tan, who was eventually elected MP in 2015 but didn’t run in 2019, reportedly got support from Chan to have the nomination date extended so that he could collect more members and votes, according to a report by the Globe and Mail citing party insiders.

The Globe reported that on the nomination voting day, supporters of Tan’s competitor Rana Sarkar—who initially was leading—reported seeing Tan’s voters arriving in buses, almost all of them non-English speakers past the age of 60. Tan contested this assertion, saying his voters were a range of ages.

While a student at the University of Toronto, Tan was head of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. These organizations exist at many universities and are known for their close ties to Chinese consulates. He also held executive positions with a number of organizations that hold events and uphold causes in line with Beijing’s priorities, including the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations and Council of Newcomer Organizations.

After becoming an MP, Tan was photographed meeting with high-ranking officials from China’s United Front Works Department, an organization that aims to expand the influence of the Chinese Communist Party by infiltrating foreign countries.

Jonathan Manthorpe, author of “Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada,” notes that many organizations and institutions for the Chinese community in Canada have connections to the United Front.

“These people [Untied Front employees] oversee the creation and management of seemingly innocuous groups, most of them embedded in ethnic Chinese communities not only in Canada, but in all countries where the Chinese diaspora of around 50 million people now live.”

Neither Chan nor Tan replied to requests for comment by press time.

‘A Good First Step’

Shahrooz told The Epoch Times he believes Bill 150 is the right approach to some of the problems he and Byers discuss regarding nomination elections.

“I’ve seen the proposed bill and it’s a good first step,” he said. “It goes some distance in addressing one of our three concerns, which is that nomination elections are currently not subjected to independent regulations or oversight. This bill would impose additional rules and make it more difficult to cheat in nomination races.”

He added that “more mechanisms” are needed in order for nomination candidates to interact with party members, such as debates.

“I ran for the nomination of the [federal] Liberal Party and there was literally no opportunity for me to speak directly to voters before the vote,” he said. “Even on nomination day, my speech to the party was scheduled after the vote had already been taken. This inability of voters to see and directly compare nomination candidates really undermines meritocracy, causing voters to vote based on factors like ethnicity/religion.”