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Nomination races are a ‘gateway’ for foreign interference — is anyone doing anything about it?

Two landmark reports have flagged federal nomination races as "particularly vulnerable" to foreign interference and a "gateway" for meddling by foreign states — but the parties have shown little interest to date in making changes.

Two back-to-back reports say nomination contests are ripe targets for meddling

The Peace tower is seen above a welcome sign as politicians begin returning to work in Ottawa, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. The Conservative and Bloc parties both held their first party caucus following the federal election.

Two landmark reports have flagged federal nomination races as "particularly vulnerable" to foreign interference and a "gateway" for meddling by foreign states — but the parties have shown little interest to date in making changes.

Earlier this month, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) — a cross-partisan committee of MPs and senators — released a heavily redacted document detailing how foreign interference is infiltrating Canadian politics.

Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of the committee, said nomination contests and leadership races are a "critical gap" and an avenue for foreign interference.

"We came face to face with the troubling intelligence that nomination processes and leadership races are particularly vulnerable to foreign interference," he told a Senate committee last week.

As his committee's report noted, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) considers the process for nominating candidates to run for federal office "a particularly soft target for several reasons."

WATCH | Focusing on parliamentarians' names misses bigger picture: NSICOP chair

Focusing on parliamentarians’ names misses bigger picture in foreign interference report: NSICOP chair

7 days ago

Duration 13:27

MP David McGuinty, chair of Parliament's national security committee, says that focusing on unnamed parliamentarians in the foreign interference report misses the bigger picture. Former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Ward Elcock joins Power & Politics to discuss.

For starters, says the NSICOP report, many ridings are considered "safe seats," so clinching the nomination can secure a seat without the foreign state having to interfere in the election itself.

The report points out that each political party has its own rules and requirements for participating in a nomination contest, such as a minimum age or residency requirement, or payment of a party membership fee.

Some parties also allow non-citizens to register as party members and vote in a nomination, as long as they live in the riding.

"CSIS assesses that it is relatively easy to fraudulently add voters who live outside a riding to a nomination process's voter list with inaccurate addresses," says the NSICOP report.

"It is also reportedly relatively easy to show an altered phone bill with the wrong address, or a fraudulent letter from a school, in order to vote in a nomination."

Consequences of detection are minor: NSICOP

The nomination processes are also not yet safeguarded by legislation or enforcement authorties like the commissioner of Canada Elections.

"As a result, the likelihood and consequences of the detection of such activities are low," says the NSICOP report.

In one case reviewed by the committee, Pakistan interfered in candidate nominations and worked to support a preferred candidate's election by mobilizing voters and raising funds. The specific details were redacted from the public version.

NSICOP is not alone in its assessment.

The public inquiry investigating foreign election meddling called party nominations a "gateway" for foreign interference.

"From the evidence I have heard so far (which has mainly concerned the LPC), the eligibility criteria for voting in nomination contests do not seem very stringent, and the control measures in place do not seem very robust," wrote Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue in her initial report last May.

One of the specific claims she examined centred on alleged irregularities in the 2019 Don Valley North Liberal nomination contest.

Hogue's report said "there are strong indications" that there was a bus transporting international students, most likely Chinese, to the Don Valley North nomination vote, and those students likely voted in support of Han Dong, who went on to win the nomination and election.

She also said the available intelligence "reflects a well-grounded suspicion that the busing of international students was tied to the [People's Republic of China]."

During the public hearing phase of Hogue's inquiry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was briefed about concerns that CSIS had about Dong's nomination contest. He said he didn't believe the evidence was sufficient to remove Dong as a candidate and dropping him would have had a devastating impact on his life.

Hogue has promised to further examine the issue of nomination races as the commission moves into the second phase of its work.

Elections Canada having 'preliminary discussions' with parties

NSICOP's report recommends that the government "engage political parties to determine whether party nomination processes and leadership conventions be included within the framework of the Canada Elections Act."

A spokesperson for Elections Canada said the agency is not looking to administer nomination contests on behalf of parties but does believe certain changes could better safeguard those races. As it stands, its role in nomination contests is limited to overseeing candidate registration and financing.

"Elections Canada understands and shares the concerns about foreign interference in federal nomination contests. We are looking at potential legislative changes to help address those concerns while preserving the autonomy of political parties in setting their own internal rules," said Matthew McKenna in an email to CBC News.

"We have done some early analysis and had preliminary discussions with political parties about potential changes to how nomination contests are run, but that work is ongoing. At this point, it would be premature to share specific details."

Chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault testified before Hogue's inquiry that CSIS told him in 2019 about possible foreign interference related to Don Valley North, but he stressed he doesn't have the power to intervene at that level.

Perrault said he has raised the issue of further regulating nomination periods with political parties.

"No appetite," he said, when asked to describe the parties' reactions to the idea of Elections Canada oversight.

Perrault said taking on nominations would "fundamentally alter" how Elections Canada operates.

Liberals, NDP defend nomination process

Despite the findings in Don Valley North, the Liberal Party continues to defend its nomination process as the "most robust in Canadian politics."

"Like most major political parties, the Liberal Party of Canada works very hard to engage more people and increase participation in our democratic process through open nominations, open policy development, and more. This is good for our democracy," said spokesperson Parker Lund in an email.

"The Liberal Party remains committed to working with the commissioner of Canada Elections, law enforcement, or any other bodies that are tasked with pursuing election regularities if there is sufficient evidence."

A spokesperson for the NDP said the party is reviewing its nomination process.

"We have no evidence that any of our MPs have collaborated with foreign powers. We have never received any briefings to indicate this as a concern from intelligence agencies," said Alana Cahill in a media statement.

"Our process for establishing nomination rules is rigorous but we are reviewing our candidate vetting process to ensure that we are screening for any concerns about foreign interference."

The Conservative Party did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

The redacted NSICOP report said foreign actors from India and the People's Republic of China interfered in more than one race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Peter Graefe, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University, said the parties still see value in running relatively open nominations.

"Parties have relied on this way of organizing and getting people into politics and if we made it much harder to to engage people, we may be in fact removing the democratic impulse," he said.

"I think this is a situation where the decision to have a relatively open process has its clear counterpart in that, yes, that process can be hijacked for a whole bunch of different reasons."

Graefe said one way to strengthen the parties would be to bring back the per-vote subsidy system, where each political party receives money from the federal government to reflect their share of the popular vote. Stephen Harper's Conservative government ended the subsidy ahead of the 2015 election.

"There are ways we could empower our parties to act a bit like a public utility, including ensuring that candidates have been properly vetted and that at least simple forms of foreign interference could be rooted out," he said in.

"But in the absence of more public subsidy for our parties, it's unlikely that our parties have the capacity to play this role properly."

New foreign interference bill does mention nominations

After receiving all-party support, the federal government's foreign inference bill is on an expedited path to royal assent. It does touch on nominations.

Bill C-70 would make it an indictable offence under the Security of Information Act — punishable by up to life in prison — for anyone to, at the direction of a foreign entity, engage in "surreptitious or deceptive conduct" to influence a political or governmental process, which includes party nomination contests.

WATCH | Trudeau says be 'wary' of claims that a party is unaffected by foreign interference

Trudeau says be ‘wary’ of any leader saying their party isn't affected by foreign interference

1 day ago

Duration 2:41

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to hearing that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said nobody in his party has been impacted by foreign interference during an interview with CBC’s Power and Politics host David Cochrane.

There's also another potential option on the table, said Graefe: a whole new system for elections.

Under proportional representation, for example, the local riding association becomes less important in choosing candidates.

"Citizens have a reason to be concerned if the candidates before them are maybe there due to the meddling of foreign governments," said Graefe. "But the solution to that is not clear because they also have made it clear that they don't like, for instance, ideas of … proportional representation, because they might not get to choose who their local candidate is.

"I guess Canadians really have to pick their poison on this one."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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