A few days before the federal election campaign got rolling in Canada, it was already underway for Conservatives in Hong Kong.
Former foreign affairs minister John Baird rallied the overseas troops at two events, while volunteers from Canadian Conservatives in Hong Kong helped people register to receive their mail-in ballots.
Notice of last Thursday’s event at a sports bar in Central and one on Sunday in Tsim Sha Tsui was posted on the group’s Facebook page with instructions to bring passports if they wanted to get registered.
The Conservative Party of Canada’s official website also has a page for the group where its invitation to the first event remains prominently displayed.
But a party spokesman said none of it — the event, the fancy logo with the Conservative Party of Canada’s C circling a red junk that’s long been Hong Kong’s tourism symbol or even helping voters get ballots — is affiliated with the party.
But if it’s not party-sanctioned, then why is it on the Conservative Party of Canada’s official website?
“An unaffiliated group of Canadian volunteers living abroad asked if we could host a webpage for their event to help other Canadians living abroad register to vote through Elections Canada’s process and exercise their right as Canadian citizens to participate in our democratic process,” said Simon Jefferies. “We obliged.”
Well, lucky for the Conservatives.
No other party has such eager overseas volunteers in Hong Kong, where there are an estimated 300,000 Canadians — or anywhere else for that matter.
Potentially, the Hong Kong votes could be decisive in Metro Vancouver, Toronto and even Calgary ridings because overseas Canadians vote in the riding where they last lived. But, so far, only 865 have registered as of this week, according to Elections Canada. Globally, fewer than 20,000 have registered with nearly half of those living in the United States and most of the others living in Britain, Australia and Germany.
This is the first time in 25 years that all Canadians living abroad are eligible to vote in the federal election. The Canada Elections Act was amended last year in advance of a January ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that voting is “a fundamental political right, and the right to vote is a core tenet of our democracy.” Two Canadians living in the United States launched the Charter of Rights challenge in 2011 after Stephen Harper’s Conservative government began more strictly enforcing a 1993 change to the Canada Elections Act. That change denied the vote to Canadians who had lived abroad for five years or more.
It’s also, lucky for the Conservatives that Baird in his new role as a senior business advisor for a big Canadian law firm makes frequent visits to Hong Kong and China, and has lost none of his partisan zeal.
“Obviously we want Canadians living abroad to support the Conservative Party and make Andrew Scheer the next prime minister of Canada,” Baird said prior to his speech. “So, I’m here to encourage people to register and support him. “
The unaffiliated Conservatives’ organizers include Barrett Bingley from The Economist Group, who holds executive positions with both the American and Canadian chambers of commerce in Hong Kong, and Brett Stephenson, director of the Asia Business Trade Association.
Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier didn’t know anything about Canadian Conservatives in Hong Kong. But she did outline the rules and noted that enforcement is done on a complaints-based system.
Regardless of where they live, any Canadian individuals or organizations spending $500 or more on partisan activities during the campaign and even in the pre-election period (which began June 30) must register. They need a bank account, a financial agent and an auditor if they spend more than $10,000.
There’s also no official role for political parties to play in registering voters. That’s Election Canada’s job. Even the role of Canadian embassies and consulates is limited to printing out forms or pointing citizens to the Elections Canada website where people can register online and request their mail-in ballots. But they must get them back by Oct. 21. The deadline to register is Oct. 15, but Canadian Conservatives warn that getting it from Hong Kong to Ottawa by voting day means mailing it by Oct. 5.
These are troubled times in Hong Kong and at home in Canada. Linked by history and blood, both are now struggling in China’s dark shadow to preserve the rights and values that have enabled both to thrive.
But with protesters battling in Hong Kong’s streets, there are few places in the world where the right to vote in fair elections holds more meaning.