“To save our country, we need to take actions,” reads a heavily-circulated message to the Chinese community.
“Our businesses of conscience are also taking actions to support people joining the Conservative Party, and to support Brad (Trost) running for the leadership,” it continues, before listing off several “benefits” Trost supporters can expect: free beer, free oil changes, store credit and discounted electrical work and travel.
The incentives — which appear to compensate members for their $15 membership fee and contravene the Elections Act and Conservative membership rules — may have helped Andrew Scheer get the keys to Stornoway.
The posting, obtained by CityNews through Conservative members, promises these perks in exchange for proof of support for one particular candidate.
“If you can join the party before 3pm, on March 28th, and vote for Brad (Trost), by presenting the copies of votes or receipts of membership fees, you will get discounts in any of our products on our website and at our location,” reads one incentive.
The businesses are all Edmonton-based, but the post was shared extensively in the Greater Toronto Area as well — most recently by a Toronto entrepreneur whose business is based on immigrant networking on March 27, the day before the deadline for membership in order to vote in the convention. Her LinkedIn profile also boasts of her involvement with Peel Region’s multicultural community.
“In the meantime, (the) Muslim community is also acting now. They are supporting a Chinese Canadian candidate Michael Chong of the Conservative Party to run for the leadership and to be their voice.,” the post reads. “This is a race and a competition. Our votes must surpass theirs so that we can have Brad (Trost) to be our voice.”
The entrepreneur did not respond requests for comment and did not answer the door at her North York home.
The online incentives were shared in Edmonton as well as the GTA, with a focus on York Region and Scarborough, ridings where the socially-conservative Saskatoon MP Trost fared exceptionally well.
In Markham-Unionville, Trost captured 57.88 per cent of first-round votes. When he was eliminated in Round 12, his support went primarily to Andrew Scheer, resulting in a 44.38-point boost for Scheer — and a coveted riding.
In Scarborough-Agincourt, Trost captured 49.35 per cent of first-round votes. His elimination from the ballot translated into an extra 37.05 points for Scheer and the riding.
In total, Trost earned over 20 per cent of first-round votes in 28 ridings — 19 of which were ultimately won by Scheer. In the GTA alone, Trost won nine ridings on the first ballots. Those ridings have a significant Chinese population and ultimately led to Scheer’s razor-thin 51-per-cent victory over front-runner Maxime Bernier.
The Trost campaign did not answer CityNews’ repeated questions about his campaign activities in the GTA, or if he had even visited these ridings; but in an interview with Parliament Hill Bureau Chief Cormac Mac Sweeny, Trost vehemently denied any involvement with the incentive program.
“My campaign was not involved in any way,” he said repeatedly.
But Trost didn’t even win his own riding in the first round of votes. He came in second place in Saskatoon-University, where he is the sitting MP.
“Unfortunately, you can’t turn back the clock in terms of the convention. The result is the result,” explained Dimitri Soudas, a former Stephen Harper aide. “So, in this instance, if this is something that initially benefited the Trost campaign, then ultimately it benefited the Scheer campaign.
“The leadership race is over, the ballots have been destroyed which means the result is the result and the leader of the party will be the leader of the Conservative Party heading into the next election campaign.
“Having said that, if there is evidence that links wrongdoing or membership-buying from one specific campaign, then there should be consequences for the candidate that ultimately led that campaign, because he or she is ultimately responsible for all the actions their team makes.”
“The campaign did hear rumours that someone was offering incentives for memberships.” Trost spokesman Mike Patton told CityNews in an email. “We didn’t know who was responsible; however, we had our Mandarin-speaking volunteers put the word out that this was not acceptable and we passed all of our information on to party headquarters.”
Trost echoed that, saying, “We heard a rumour about it — and Chinese online stuff is not very clear — I forget, end of March? Membership sales were over, or just about over. And we didn’t even know. It was just a rumour. And I told my Chinese volunteers who I was acquainted with, ‘If this is going on, it has to stop.’”
But the campaign didn’t share that message with two key groups: Chinese Conservative voters and Trost supporters.
Comb through the Trost leadership website and you’ll find no warnings advising members to refuse the incentives or to refrain from offering them. In addition, the Trost team did not contact the largest cohort of targeted groups: the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association (CCCA).
“The campaign didn’t reach out to me personally or our board,” CCCA national chair Alex Yuan told CityNews. He added the CCCA didn’t endorse any candidate and had no involvement in the incentives, although Yuan had heard about them.
“I didn’t see them, and they weren’t offered to me personally,” he added.
Soudas said the incentives offered were a clear breach of the Conservative Party’s membership rules.
“If the incentive is monetary — for example, if I were to say, ‘Buy a membership card and I’ll give you $15 back. Whether it’s $15 cash or a $15 value of something, that goes against both the spirit and the letter of the Conservative rules for membership,” he said. “Yes, it does.”
The Conservative Party investigated the incentives and found no direct link to the Trost campaign.
Although Section 368 of the Canada Elections Act bars a person or business from circumventing or attempting to circumvent the rules on contributor eligibility and the contribution limits, offering incentives in exchange for votes isn’t a clear violation of the law.
“Depending on the specific facts, offering a benefit (goods or services) of financial value to those who buy a party membership may constitute a contribution or an attempt to make a contribution from the businesses offering the products and services to the leadership contestant or the party,” explained Elections Canada spokeswoman Melanie Wise.
If the businesses submit the costs of the incentives redeemed as contributions to the Trost campaign and they don’t exceed spending limits, they could be operating within the confines of the legislation. Final returns aren’t due for several months.
“From what I understand, no one actually received any incentives,” Trost said, although there were no expiry dates on the offers.
George Wooten, a political science professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said the incentives leave a black mark on the process and the results.
“If it doesn’t break the rules in the legal sense of the word, I think it certainly violates the spirit of them,” he said. “I think that what we have is a potentially ethically-challenging situation.
“I find it highly unlikely that any leadership candidate or political party would say to the public, ‘Hey, we’ve been incentivizing people to vote for us and isn’t that great?’ I think that’s a problem for them.”
Wooten predicted more of this as parties move from the delegate system to one-member, one-vote leadership selections.
“Candidates have an incentive to offer more than just the persuasiveness of the candidate or the strength of their ideas,” he said. “They need to find other ways to get people interested in the party. I think this will become increasingly common moving forward, because what do candidates have to offer?”
Soudas said there should be consequences for those involved, but the Conservatives aren’t answering questions.
In an emailed statement, Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann wrote, “We’re aware and checked into it. We found no direct connection to any campaign.”
He didn’t answer questions regarding who was contacted and when, and whether there would be consequences for those involved.
Soudas said one way to rid the party of vote-buying and membership incentives is to offer it for free.
“If we genuinely want to encourage grassroots democracy, the same way that you don’t have to pay to vote in a general election you shouldn’t have to pay to vote in the nomination process,” he said.
“That’s exactly what happens down south in the U.S.”