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Conservative robocalls within normal electoral review process, says Harper

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OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is making no apologies for his party's use of deceptive robocalls to rally public opinion against proposed changes to riding boundaries in Saskatchewan.

Harper insisted Wednesday there was nothing wrong with the automated calls last week, which warned listeners that the changes would "destroy Saskatchewan values" and pit rural folk against urban dwellers — all without identifying that the caller was the Conservative party.

What's more, he said the party's message simply echoed the majority view in Saskatchewan, where 75 per cent who submitted opinions to the independent boundary commission were opposed to the proposed changes.

"The party followed the rules and our position to the public is very clear on the commission," Harper said.

But the head of the boundary commission said he doesn't know where that 75 per cent number is coming from.

Justice Ron Mills said he assumes Harper is quoting a minority report from one of the three commission members who is against the proposed changes. But Mills said it isn't even clear if that report includes pre-proposal submissions, which he said were "overwhelmingly in favour of urban only."

Mills said the commission didn't do that math and the numbers are irrelevant to its task.

"Some people said at the (public) hearings, 'Hi, I'm here because I want my MP elected. I don't want you to change the boundaries' and that's good for them, but it's not a consideration that we would count," Mills said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"When you start looking at's a mug's game.

"I mean, if you add up just people who sent in, you get one version. If you start eliminating what were clearly submissions based on irrelevant considerations, well, of course you get a different number. I have no idea what the 75 per cent number is, that's not a number the commission generated."

Mills said that some of the 2,500 submissions the commission received once the proposal was made public were identical, pre-printed, postage-paid cards opposing the new boundaries. No political party was named on the cards.

The commission is proposing to redistribute some of the 14 federal ridings in Saskatchewan to better reflect population growth in Regina and Saskatoon.

Existing ridings — four in Regina, four in Saskatoon — spread out like slices of a pie, pulling in a corner of each city and a bigger rural area of towns, villages and farms. The proposal would eliminate that urban-rural mix and create urban-only ridings in the cities.

But the proposal has 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.

After initially denying any involvement, the Conservative party admitted Tuesday it was behind the so-called "push poll" calls in Saskatchewan.

The computer-generated calls identified no political party, saying only that they came from a company called Chase Research. The party has blamed "internal miscommunication" for the failure to identify the Conservatives.

Opposition anger over the robocalls spiked Wednesday after Postmedia News reported that the Saskatchewan calls appear to have emanated from the same Edmonton-based call centre that was used during the 2011 election to misdirect voters in Guelph, Ont., to wrong or non-existent polling stations.

Harper ignored the opposition barrage.

While the commission makes the final decision, Harper said it is perfectly legitimate for anyone, including political parties, to offer their opinion on the proposed changes.

"Those commissions accept and expect input from parliamentarians, from political parties and from the general public," he told the Commons.

"We are simply operating within the process."

Not so, opposition critics — including NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae — maintained, accusing the Conservatives of using "fraudulent" calls to manipulate what's supposed to be an independent process.

Even a Saskatchewan Conservative MP, Tom Lukiwski, called the calls "deceptive" and told local radio shows he was not happy with the party's failure to identify itself. He said Jenni Byrne, the party's director of political operations, "would take full responsibility" for the mistake.

Rae described the calls as nothing short of a Conservative effort to gerrymander Saskatchewan ridings.

Mulcair, for his part, was scornful: "Since when do robocalls become input in our political process?"

Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate the matter. Goodale called the robocalls a "deplorable" attempt to undermine the work of the commission that should be fully investigated by the federal telecommunications regulator.

A parliamentary committee will hear from MPs, likely in early March, then draft a report for Elections Canada. Elections Canada will send that report back to the Saskatchewan boundaries commission.

Mills said the commission "can change nothing, change a little or change it all."

But, he said, the robocalls are "absolutely" irrelevant to the commission's process and won't sway its opinion.

"The commission has filed its report. The only basis on which it will reconsider is what the MPs say," he said.

"If the MPs ask us to reconsider, we will look very carefully at what they say and then reconsider on that basis. If there was a request in the general public to reconsider, we wouldn't of course do that, we've already paid attention to that."

— By Joan Bryden in Ottawa and Jennifer Graham in Regina

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