The “Nixonian culture” of trying to circumvent the democratic process through robocalls and live calls with links to the Conservative party that has become the news story in Ottawa will hopefully lead to the identity of those who tried similar “dirty tricks” during the fall provincial election. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, “The prime minister has created a Nixonian culture. This stuff doesn’t happen unless the boss lets it happen. He has allowed to seep into his party and into organization a culture of attack and, frankly a culture of deception and dirty tricks, where almost anything goes.”
The Liberals and NDP say these dirty tricks happened in about 34 ridings. In many of these ridings voters received robocalls on Election day from someone identifying themselves as from “Elections Canada” advising them that their polling station had changed. The transcript of a bogus call sent to a voter in Guelph, which the Liberals ended up holding onto with an almost 6,000 vote plurality, on May 2, 2011 (federal election day) stated, “This is an automated message from Elections Canada. Due to a projected increase in voter turnout, your poll location has changed. Your new voting location is at the Old Quebec Street Mall, at 55 Wyndham Street North...We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. (A French version in another woman’s voice followed.)”
Investigators for Elections Canada traced the call to a disposable “burner” cellphone in area code 450 in Joliette, Quebec. After an elaborate digital chase, the source of the calls was tracked to Racknine, a small Edmonton call centre that worked for the Conservatives’ national campaign and those of at least nine Conservative candidates, including Harper’s own campaign in Calgary Southwest. There is no evidence that Harper’s campaign or any of the other candidates were involved in the calls. Racknine owner Matt Meier said he was unaware one of his customers was involved in the calls until contacted by Elections Canada in November. Meier and Racknine are co–operating fully with the investigation. He said he knows whose account was used for the calls but would not reveal the owner because of client confidentiality and concerns about interfering with the investigation. He’d only say it was someone “down East” (meaning Ontario or Quebec). These calls were reported in ridings across Canada including Kitchener–Waterloo, London–West, Parkdale–High Park, Winnipeg South Centre (where Liberal incumbent Anita Neville was defeated by Conservative Joyce Bateman by 722 votes) and Sydney–Victoria [N.S.] (where Liberal Mark Eyking squeaked to victory over the Conservative candidate by 180 votes).
Internal Elections Canada e–mails obtained by the media under Access to Information requests shows officials were concerned by the calls they were receiving from voters in the affected ridings. At 11:06 a.m. (election day), election officer Anita Hawdur sent an e–mail to legal counsel Karen McNeil with the header: “URGENT Conservative campaign office communication with electors.” Hawdur reported that returning officers were also calling to ask about the calls. McNeil replied telling Hawdur to alert Ronnie Molnar, the deputy chief electoral officer. He later e–mailed Michael Roussel, a senior director: “This one is far more serious. They have actually disrupted the voting process.”
In a statement last Thursday the Conservatives denied they were behind the calls. “The Conservative Party of Canada ran a clean and ethical campaign and would never tolerate such activity,” Jenni Byrne, manager of the national campaign, stated. But a day later, a Conservative government aide to Toronto–area MP Eve Adams lost his job. Michael Sona, 23, acted as communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke. He previously worked as communications assistant for Fundy Royal Conservative MP Rob Moore. Sona made headlines in April when he was accused to trying to grab a ballot box used at a special poll station set up for University of Guelph students. Elections Canada ruled the vote was admissible. It’s unclear what role, if any, Sona may have played in the robocall scandal.
But Rae dismissed the tactic of throwing Sona under the bus to try and deflect attention. “Why would they only find the guy today, after the story has come out? They’ve known about this allegation a long time.” Rae also said it was too concerted and widespread to be the action of one person. “I think when you get as many ridings coming forward as we’ve seen now, you can’t just say it’s an isolated incident or an isolated case. This is not an isolated problem. It’s becoming a very disturbing pattern, which we can see right across the country, not just in a few ridings.”
Other ridings were also the sites of dirty tricks phone calls. Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen have also reported evidence of a “systematic voter–suppression campaign” against Liberals in tight ridings during the federal campaign. This campaign consisted of harassing phone calls that targeted Liberal voters in 14 ridings—the majority of them in southern Ontario. Liberal supporters report the repeated calls usually came during dinner, late at night or early in the morning from people claiming to represent the local Liberal candidate. Calls were also placed to voters with Jewish–sounding names during the Saturday Sabbath and in one riding with a South Asian candidate, voters received phone calls from someone imitating a Pakistani accent. The calls seemed designed to antagonize Liberal supporters.
While the Liberals admit they haven’t found “the smoking gun” directly tying this scheme to the Conservatives, it fits an established pattern of questionable tactics. There was the “in and out” affair in which the Conservatives played a shell game with money to try and take the spending off the national books and onto the books of local candidates, some of whom were completely unaware of it. The Conservatives have since pled guilty. Then there were the deceptive calls to voters in Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s Mount Royal riding in the fall where the caller said there would soon be a by–election and asked whether they’d support the Conservative candidate. The Speaker of the House ruled that this sort of behaviour was not a breach of Cotler’s privilege as a Member of Parliament, but took pains to unequivocally condemn the tactic. But Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan said those making those calls were just “exercising their freedom of speech.”
The robocall scheme required state–of–the–art tracking systems, including detailed and annotated voters’ lists, as well as names, phone numbers and addresses. To sift through a list and identify which names sound Jewish or which voters live in predominantly Jewish (or other ethnic) neighbourhoods requires advanced knowledge and technical tools. It’s beyond plausible a 23–year–old communications assistant would have these resources. But we know the Prime Minister’s staff has such tools. It was only this past fall they send thousands of Jewish Canadians cards for the Jewish New Year. Those with the capacity to send personally addressed cards for Rosh Hashanah to a highly targeted audience would have the know–how and resources to carry out a complex robocall scheme. But no doubt there is plausible deniability for Harper and many of the Conservative candidates.
One wonders if the same group were involved in the robocalls that targeted Liberal–held ridings during the provincial election. In at least two of those ridings, the automated caller states the Liberal MPP is a homosexual and asks rhetorically if the person receiving the call wants a gay MPP representing them. In St. Catharines, in addition to another robocall, voters received one the day prior to the election stating they were calling from “the Irene Lawell NDP campaign” and stating that Premier Dalton McGuinty and Liberal MPP Jim Bradley had been in office far too long and a change was needed and asking them to support Irene “Lawell.” To the educated it was obvious the call did not come from the NDP camp, as the candidate’s name was Lowell, not “Lawell.” But the Conservatives were in a close race with Bradley (he ended up winning by 1,703 votes) and additional votes for the NDP could have allowed them to come up the middle. In rural ridings, Liberal incumbents were targeted for supporting green energy projects that included wind turbines. This strategy was largely successful. Liberals who were targeted by these robocalls put the responsibility on Tim Hudak’s Conservatives, but again there is no “smoking gun.”
Let’s hope the federal investigation results in fraud charges, at the very least, for those found guilty. These antics have no place in the democratic process and only serve to keep voters from going to the ballot box. As interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel stated, “It is really sad for the election process. This doesn’t help people who don’t vote, to come back and believe in the election process.” V