The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Federal Conservatives acknowledge they're behind Saskatchewan 'push poll'

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OTTAWA - The federal Conservative party is acknowledging it commissioned a so-called "push poll" in the Prairies warning would-be voters that changes to their electoral boundaries would undermine "Saskatchewan values."

An arms-length, independent commission is proposing to redistribute some of the province's 14 federal ridings in order to better reflect increasingly urban populations in Regina and Saskatoon.

But the changes have met with stiff resistance from Conservatives, who hold 13 of Saskatchewan's 14 seats and fear a more concentrated urban vote in some ridings might favour their political rivals.

Since the electoral map changes have become public, residents have complained of getting automated phone calls that suggest the redistribution would pit rural people against urban dwellers — then seek a response.

The robocalls identified no political party, saying they came from a company called Chase Research. That prompted complaints to the broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

After initially denying any involvement, a Conservative party spokesman in Ottawa corrected the record Tuesday.

"There was an internal miscommunication on the matter, and the calls should have been identified as coming from the Conservative party," Fred DeLorey said in a statement.

DeLorey denied the party was polling on the issue because "we already know where people stand." Three-quarters of those who participated in the boundary commission hearings were opposed to the changes, he said.

"But we are doing a host of things to communicate with voters and get their feedback," DeLorey said in the statement.

Electoral boundaries are automatically examined every 10 years as populations shift. Changes are proposed by independent panels after public consultation.

The Saskatchewan commission includes a judge, a professor emeritus and a representative of a rural municipalities association. The rural community group representative opposes the proposed changes.

University of Saskatchewan political science professor Dave McGrane told The Canadian Press that several people emailed him about the robocalls, prompting him to investigate Chase Research.

McGrane said he could not find a website for the company; calling the number from which the original calls were made went to an automated answering machine.

The same firm was linked to another push poll in Alberta last February.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, Saskatchewan's lone non-conservative MP, said in an interview the Conservative party was not seeking feedback with the automated calls.

"This set of calls was intended to do exactly the opposite, to twist public opinion, and also discredit the work of the commission and by implication malign the commissioners that did the work," Goodale said.

"The Conservatives used the same technique to go after (Montreal Liberal MP) Irwin Cotler," said Goodale, describing it as "push-poll chicanery."

In the Cotler case, the Conservative party acknowledged commissioning calls into his Montreal riding that claimed the veteran MP was about to retire. Cotler lodged a formal complaint in the House of Commons, and the Speaker called the practice "reprehensible."

The whole purpose of independent electoral commissions is to avoid perceptions of political parties "gerrymandering" the electoral map for their partisan benefit, said Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader.

Cullen said the Conservative calls in Saskatchewan were "disappointing but no surprise."

"It's always total war and the ethic is winning at all costs."

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