Monday, May 13, 2024

History of election interference: it's an inside job

I've been trying to follow the inquiries that have been in the headlines in the past year or so, about alleged interference by foreign powers in Canadian elections: the Johnson, the Hogue, etc. It's all been a bit murky, and the point is not often easy to see. The media and Question Period are full of lurid suggestions about Chinese and other foreign agents performing not-very-well specified nefarious acts to meddle in Canadian election results. The government should have done something!

Maybe it is a bad thing -- spies gonna spy, and someone's gotta counterspy. But most of the alleged interference seems to amount to nothing more than buying party "memberships" that allow the holders to vote during the selection of local party candidates and would-be party leaders. And that, of course, is exactly what all the political parties are endlessly begging anyone and everyone to do: buy a vote. Recent example: Membership in the Alberta NDP recently grew from 16,000 to perhaps 85,000. As it happens, there has a leadership "race" (a leadership market, one should perhaps say) in the party at the same time.

There are scores of Canadian political consultancies that make a good business doing little more than manufacturing voters for candidate selection races and leadership contests in all the political parties. The Chinese government and the Hell's Angels and, I don't know, the Association of Suburban Property Developers would be crazy not to avail themselves of the opportunities the political parties are desperate to offer them. The corruption is not on the part of membership buyers (though indeed we should understand it is always an unethical act to buy a party membership during candidate or leadership selection races). The corruption is coming directly from the political parties that devised these processes. 

All our parties  -- with the support of virtually all our pundits and political scientists-- are committed to party leadership contests that mean nothing but vote-buying: the candidate whose team invests the most capital in buying memberships gets to pick the winner. In that process, who actually agrees to hold and vote the membership hardly matters. Whether 14 year old kids or foreign agents, they have all been bought and sold. Once the winning candidate is installed, their membership becomes worthless, anyway.

But maybe the endless fruitless public inquiries are beginning to influence a few commentators. On Saturday Andrew Coyne pointed out where the rot really lies:

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.

Coyne identifies the deeper problem this corruption is designed to produce:

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.
The Globe and Mail may be awakening to this issue. Today another Globe columnist, Campbell Clark, joins the charge. But Clark, at least, is still pulling his punches. He wants the parties not to end the vote-buying orgies but only to clean them up.

The deeper point, the one Coyne is at least moving toward, is that a parliamentary system cannot function properly unless party leaders are accountable to the elected party caucus. Parliament is not a parliament if only the four or five MPs for whom leadership positions have been purchased are allowed to have opinions.  All MPs, and not just those in leadership positions, must ultimately be involved in determining what parliaments do.  They do that by determining who leads them and what caucus policy should be.  
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