Canada’s Watergate: opposition

PM says Tories not behind fake automated calls to voters


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OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists the Conservative party had nothing to do with a dirty tricks campaign aimed at discouraging opposition supporters from voting in last spring's election.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/02/2012 (4054 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists the Conservative party had nothing to do with a dirty tricks campaign aimed at discouraging opposition supporters from voting in last spring’s election.

But given his party’s history of illegal or questionable campaign tactics, New Democrats and Liberals don’t buy it. They say the latest revelations are more proof the Conservatives have systematically cheated and subverted the democratic process in order to win elections.

They equate the case to the Watergate scandal that ousted former U.S. president Richard Nixon and they want a criminal investigation.

Winnipeg New Democrat MP Pat Martin predicted the magnitude of the scam “will be enough to make Richard Nixon blush.”

The opposition charges came Thursday after a company that did campaign work for Conservatives, including Harper, was linked to harassing or misleading automated phone calls received by voters in some 18 hotly contested ridings just prior to the May 2 election.

The robocalls falsely advised voters Elections Canada had changed the location of their polling stations. In other instances, voters received harassing late-night or early-morning calls that purported to be from an opposition campaign office.

Edmonton-based RackNine Inc. confirmed Thursday its automated dialling service was used to deliver the phoney messages and Elections Canada and the police are investigating.

“I was shocked and distressed to learn that some party had used our services to try and disrupt voting during the 2011 federal election,” RackNine CEO Matt Meier said in an email. “We are committed to ensuring that those who misused our services will face the full penalty of law…”

The RCMP refused to confirm or deny it is part of an investigation, but said it may work with government departments or agencies if it is asked.

Harper denied any knowledge of the scams. “I have absolutely no knowledge on anything about these calls but, obviously, if there’s anyone who has done anything wrong, we expect that they will face the full consequences of the law.”

Conservative party campaign manager Jenni Byrne said her party “ran a clean and ethical campaign and would never tolerate such activity,” although she left open the possibility a rogue local party worker may have been involved.

“Voter suppression is extremely serious and if anything improper occurred, those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” she said in a written statement.

However, opposition parties scoffed at the notion of a rogue Tory acting independently in ridings from Nova Scotia to Manitoba.

The NDP’s Martin said the Tories are “laying the foundation for throwing some kid under the bus” when it’s clear there’s been “a massive conspiracy to defraud the electoral system.”

Opposition MPs noted whoever organized the calls had to have access to lists that identified each voter’s party preference — something typically only available to local and national party campaign headquarters.

Moreover, they noted this is not the first time the Conservatives have been caught playing fast and loose with election law or rules of fair play.

Last December, the party was castigated by the Speaker of the House of Commons for conducting a “reprehensible” phone campaign in the Montreal riding of Liberal Irwin Cotler that falsely suggested the MP was about to step down.

A month earlier, the Conservative party and its fundraising arm pleaded guilty to exceeding the party’s spending limit during the 2006 election campaign, through an elaborate scheme in which the party funnelled money for national ads through 67 local candidates. Charges against four top party officials were dropped in a plea bargain.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said “the whole, messy, tangled web” needs to be investigated. And he laid the blame for all of them squarely on Harper. “A party whose entire approach to politics is negative… is responsible for a toxic and poisonous political culture,” said Rae. “It’s in this culture that dirty tricks thrive.”

Harper refused to concede any pattern to his party’s behaviour, saying “all of these are different” controversies.

Martin said the phoney robocall ploy was used in at least eight ridings held by the NDP, in addition to almost a dozen Liberal ridings. Martin said the ploy may have cost the NDP one seat in Edmonton and another in Nova Scotia.

Liberal MP John McCallum said at least three of his former colleagues — Martha Hall Findlay, Borys Wrzesnewskyj in Toronto and Anita Neville in Winnipeg — may have lost as a result.

McCallum admitted there’s no concrete evidence linking the Tories to the robocalls.

“We don’t have a smoking gun pointing to Stephen Harper and the Conservative party, but we do know that these actions benefited the Conservative party and we do know this strategy has been in their tool kit for some time. So there are definitely suspicions.”


— The Canadian Press


Winnipeg riding target

of ‘dirty tricks’ scam

THE Conservatives snagged Winnipeg South Centre, a Liberal bastian, in last May’s election — and it was one of the key ridings in which bogus automated calls were made to voters by a call centre linked to the Tories.

Joyce Bateman, a one-time Liberal and former school trustee who ran as a Conservative, defeated 11-year Grit MP Anita Neville.

Winnipeg South Centre was the longest Liberal-held riding in Western Canada.

Neville said Thursday she does not blame her loss on the calls but said the situation is extremely unsettling.

“I find it quite disturbing they are coming from a Conservative company that does business with the prime minister,” Neville said. “It’s clearly got Conservative hands or Conservative whatever on it.”

Neville said the calls echo other efforts by the Conservatives to discredit her, including repeated mailings of taxpayer-funded flyers to her riding. They contained half-truths and allegations she said were blatantly unfair.

But Neville said there are few consequences for anyone who gets caught.

“It creates a culture in this country that you can get away with it.”

Neville said in addition to calls to people telling them their polling station had moved, early in the campaign her office received calls from voters who said they were getting rude phone calls from someone who claimed to be a Liberal.

“We didn’t even have phone calls going out at that point in the campaign,” she said. “It goes to a whole culture of dirty tricks.”


— Mia Rabson

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