Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 23, 2012 | Circulation 115,000 unique monthly visitors
With their narrow 10-seat majority in Parliament, the Conservative Partyis facing its most significant scandal since the 2011 election, after Elections Canada began an investigation into thousands of illegal ‘robo-calls’ traced to a Conservative-tied firm in Alberta. You could call it ‘Robo-Gate’.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) alleged in a press conference today that it might have won the 2011 election had “dirty tricks” not been used to prevent NDP, Liberal and Bloc Quebecois voters from exercising their democratic rights. At a press conference in Ottawa today, Winnipeg NDP Member of Parliament Pat Martin called it “the largest electoral fraud in Canadian history.”
“If we lost the damn election, who do you appeal to?” Martin demanded. “Is the election null and void?
“It’s outrageous, it’s disturbing, and it’s as offensive as you can possibly get if you give a damn about our electoral system. All I know is that it’s a razor-thin majority – the NDP finished a close second (in many ridings). We don’t know how many of those were tampered with by cheating. It could have been a completely different outcome this election.”
The scandal emerged after the Ottawa Citizen revealed that Elections Canada had traced automatic, pre-recorded phone calls – dubbed ‘robo-calls’ – to a firm used extensively by the Conservatives during the 2011 election, Edmonton-based RackNine Inc. The calls, made to at least 18 key swing ridings across the country, sent opposition voters to false voting stations and impersonated Liberal campaigners with offensive calls.
“It’s a technique the Conservatives have borrowed from their Republican friends to the south,” said Liberal MP John McCallum in a press conference this morning. “This is an effort to deprive Canadians of their right to vote.”
The Commissioner of Canada Elections reported to Parliament he hasopened an investigation into “crank calls designed to discourage voting, discourage voting for a particular party, or incorrectly advise electors of changed polling locations.”
But the Conservative Party denied official links to the robo-calls. The party’s 2011 election campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, insisted that the Conservatives “ran a clean and ethical campaign and would never tolerate such activity,” according to a press release. “The Party was not involved with these calls and if anyone on a local campaign was involved they will not play a role in a future campaign.”
Another Conservative spokesperson also denied party links.
“The Conservative Party of Canada was not involved with these calls,” said party spokesman Fred Delorey. “Our job is to get votes out, we do not engage in voter suppression.”
Martin called for an RCMP investigation into the calls, and suggested that a scandal of such a fundamental scope undermines Canadians’ confidence in the electoral system – and therefore might warrant a national public inquiry.
“This is of critical importance to people in this country and the health of this democracy,” Martin said. “It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know who benefits from misleading NDP and Liberal voters where to vote on election day.”
“I don’t think they can cover this up. Ultimately, it may come to a time for a full public inquiry to investigate the depth and breadth of what looks to be largest electoral fraud in Canadian history.”
It is not the first election scandal which has wracked the Conservative Party, which won a majority of seats in the House of Commons with less than 40 per cent of the vote. In November, the party admitted it was behind calls to constituents of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler‘s Montreal riding, which falsely claimed the MP had resigned suddenly and a by-election would be called.
The Conservative party was also censured for funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars for its national campaign through local riding associations in what became dubbed the ‘in-out scandal’, circumventing campaign expense limits, during the 2006 election. The Vancouver-East riding held by NDP MP Libby Davies was one of the targeted ridings.
One example of a robo-call pretended to be from Elections Canada, as quoted in the Ottawa Citizen:
From 450-760-7746. Received May 2 at 10:12 a.m.
This is an automated message from Elections Canada. Due to a projected increase in voter turnout, your poll location has been changed. You new voting location is at the Old Quebec Street Mall at 55 Wyndham Street North. Once again, your new poll location is the Old Quebec Street Mall at 55 Wyndham Street North. If you have any questions, please call our hotline at 1-800-434-4456. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause.
Similar calls were reported in the ridings of Kitchener-Waterloo, Kitchener-Conestaga, London-West, Parkdale-High Park, Winnipeg South Centre and Sydney-Victoria.
Although the full list of 18 robo-call ridings has not been released, the Conservatives won by narrow margins of victory in 14 ridings across the country, often coming within hundreds of votes, according to Rabble.ca.