Questioning Jump in Party Memberships During Leadership Races Sparks Controversy

Is it racist to doubt mass signups, or do lax rules open door to abuse?

By Andrew MacLeod 28 Sep 2017 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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After loss in BC NDP’s 2011 leadership contest, former MLA Harry Lali called for Elections BC oversight of future races. Photo: BC NDP.

Questioning the large numbers of new members that Jagmeet Singh’s federal NDP leadership campaign has brought into the party amounts to racism, says a response to a story The Tyee published this week.

“This is how Canadian racism functions,” said the post by Surrey filmmaker Kashif Pasta. “It’s not loud, brash, and printed on banners (mostly), but steeped in clean and polite policy and rhetoric. Less go-back-to-where-you-came-from, and more you-can-help-the-party-by-bringing-samosas-leave-the-policy-work-to-us.”

The Tyee article quoted Don Scott, an NDP MLA in Manitoba in the 1980s, saying that based on past experience many of the 47,000 members Singh’s campaign had reportedly signed up as NDP members would disappear once the leadership vote was over.

“The only people who can really take advantage of this the way it is are the ethnic groups,” Scott said, arguing it’s not racist to believe parties should be broadly based. “It’s a group of people who are orchestrated. Some groups are more open to being manipulated than others.”

He called on parties to tighten their membership rules and for governments to require Elections Canada and its provincial equivalents to begin handling memberships for the parties.

‘What racism looks like’

Comments on the article ranged from ones agreeing with Scott to those who said it was a racist attack on Singh’s campaign.

One commenter wrote that he was an NDP supporter who lived in Surrey for many years.

“Here is how it worked in many ridings,” he said, describing the candidate selection process. “There are a 100 or so members in your riding and 35 would show up to vote... From out of nowhere person X puts in his/her name to run in said riding and signs up 300 members from their community... The election is held and person X wins 300 to 35. This is not racism this is reality!”

But another said Singh shouldn’t be criticized for encouraging participation. “When people see themselves or their values more closely represented in politics of course they are going to vote… This is what racism looks like. It doesn't have to be overt and obviously malicious to be racist.”

Another commenter agreed. “If the whites stack a meeting it is all right, but God help us if the minorities, who happen to be Canadians, do it, then it’s a threat to democracy. I disagree.”

But another commenter cited the negative effects of a short-term jump in party memberships. “Perhaps you have not witnessed this directly, the sudden appearance of thousands of new party memberships that then evaporate away after the vote. If you had, you might accept the premise... that stacking the membership at the eleventh hour damages party credibility and distorts electoral process.”

Changing rules unfair

Filmmaker Pasta’s response was posted on Medium.

“The implication is that Jagmeet Singh getting more Canadians than ever before interested in and supporting Don’s party is manipulative and causes the entire process of selecting a leader to lose legitimacy,” he wrote. “The real problem is that more than one South Asian Canadian took up an interest. One of us, Jagmeet Singh, even crossed the line and ran for party leader.”

The response from people to the participation in politics of those with “above-average amounts of melanin” suggests the new members’ “involvement is somehow less ‘real’ than that of others,” he wrote. “People ‘orchestrating’ for change also used to be called ‘democracy.’ Until South Asians got involved. Now it’s considered a problem.”

Pasta argued that changing the rules as Scott proposed would be a standard racist response, saying it “actually falls in line what we’ve all experienced a hundred times at school, work, or in civic life. The rules are there for a reason, until the brown kids figure it out, at which point, wow, we must not have examined the rules hard enough, there’s gotta be a flaw here.”

“It’s crazy to me that if this is an issue now, it hasn’t been an issue before.”

Pasta said in a phone interview that he welcomed Scott making his comments in a public forum where they could be addressed. “Normally it is a lot more under the surface.”

Singh’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment made before and after The Tyee piece ran.

A federal NDP spokesperson responded to an initial email, but not to detailed questions about the party’s process for vetting memberships. The party’s leadership rules say that if more than five per cent of a candidate’s paper membership forms are found to be fraudulent, all of the members the candidate signed up that way will be barred from voting.

Rules tighter now

Every political party sets membership rules to make sure the process isn’t manipulated, said one senior South Asian New Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concern about reaction from the party. “Sometimes you get an overzealous recruiter,” he said. “The parties have rules and you have to follow the rules.”

Requiring a $10 fee helps, as does lengthening the number of days a person has to be a member before they are allowed to vote, he said. Parties used to allow members to sign up 30 days before a leadership or candidate selection vote. In some cases it is as long as 90 days. For the federal NDP race it is 45 days.

“It’s always good to have an independent review,” he said. “Things have tightened up so much ever since the Ujjal thing.”

The source was referring to Ujjal Dosanjh, who became premier in 2000 after winning the NDP leadership race. He later became a federal Liberal Member of Parliament.

Ahead of the NDP’s leadership convention in 2000, the party disqualified more than 1,300 new memberships after a month-long investigation. “The disclosure... is a major embarrassment to the party and will almost certainly taint the campaign of frontrunner Ujjal Dosanjh, the attorney general, whose supporters had signed up the majority of the memberships found to be invalid,” the Globe and Mail reported at the time.

“Media reports said that many Indo-Canadians were signed up without their knowledge. Some were also said to be members of the Liberal Party, making them ineligible to join the NDP,” the story said. “The so-called bulk sign-ups have been a major source of controversy throughout the long campaign. Mr. Dosanjh has promised to change membership rules in the future.”

Similar practices continued as recently as 2013, said Wendy Bales, who sought the NDP nomination in the provincial constituency of Abbotsford-Mission that year.

An independent body is needed to oversee parties’ membership lists, she said. “It’s not about race at all for me.”

The former Fraser Valley Regional District director said that she knocked on the doors of many people whose names were on the NDP membership list only to be told they had no idea they were party members. In many other cases the names and addresses didn’t match. She was also aware, she said, of 121 people who were members of both the NDP and the BC Liberals, a practice neither party allows.

“It really needs exposure,” she said. “The thing that keeps it going on and on is it’s all confidential and parties don’t compare their lists.” Bales said she left the NDP over the issue and ran in the election as an independent. “I probably didn’t explain it as well as I should have when the election was happening,” she said.

Powerful position

When independent MLAs Vicki Huntington, Bob Simpson and John van Dongen called for democratic reforms ahead of the 2013 provincial election, they included the need for new rules for leadership contests.

“During the 2011 NDP and Liberal leadership campaigns, both contests generated controversy in the media due to irregularities,” they wrote.

Following the NDP’s leadership contest, one of the participants, Harry Lali, proposed Elections BC oversight for future campaigns.

“All party leadership nomination contests will be run by Elections BC under a clear set of rules and guidelines in order to ensure fairness and accountability for all leadership candidates and to avoid any actual or perceived conflicts-of-interest and to avoid any actual or perceived favouritism,” he wrote.

“All political parties must supply, under strict confidentiality and privacy rules, a list of names and residential addresses of all existing members of their respective political parties to Elections BC who will run the names through a verification process to determine if any members carry dual or multiple memberships in B.C. political parties.”

Lali made his proposals following the 2011 provincial NDP leadership race won by Adrian Dix. During that campaign, MLA Mable Elmore was captured on video stapling $10 bills to membership forms, leading to complaints to the party from Dix’s opponents about the legitimacy of the memberships.

That same year in the BC Liberal leadership race won by Christy Clark, the party membership doubled, but questions were raised about vetting after the membership list was found to include at least one cat.

The three independent MLAs also quoted Mike Farnworth, who came second in the 2011 leadership race and is today the province’s solicitor general.

“Elections BC-monitored nominations should be considered to avoid any process that ‘casts doubt upon the integrity of our party,’” he said.

Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote in 2013 that the independent MLAs were right.

The winners of leadership contests could become premier without facing the electorate, Palmer wrote.

“The public has an overwhelming interest in ensuring independent oversight of how political parties choose them.”  [Tyee]

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