UPDATE: By Daniel Leblanc, Globe and Mail, March 2, 2012
Elections Canada has been deluged by 31,000 complaints in relation to last year’s ballot, focused mainly on robo-calls and other harassing phone calls.
The non-partisan agency received 500 complaints in relation to the previous election in 2008, and 329 in relation to the 2006 ballot.
By Steven Chase, Daniel Leblanc and Josh Wingrove, Globe and Mail, February 28, 2012
Documents retrieved from an Edmonton court for the first time describe in detail exactly how Canada’s elections watchdog believes someone linked to the Conservative campaign in Guelph, Ont., tried to suppress the vote for rival candidates on May 2, 2011. This comes as opposition parties accuse the Tories of election misdeeds across a broader array of ridings – about 30 throughout the country.
The allegations laid out by Elections Canada paint a picture of a sophisticated dirty tricks campaign, one that is likely to damage the governing Conservatives despite their insistence that any wrongdoing was the work of a rogue political aide.
Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said he has never encountered a vote suppression scheme on the scale of the one alleged in Guelph.
“Absolutely not, I can say that honestly,” he said in an interview. “This is the first I hear of something of this scope.”
Late Tuesday, Michael Sona, the former Conservative staffer linked to the controversy, broke his silence to protest his innocence and say he hoped the “real guilty party” would be found.
Elections Canada has been investigating complaints of voters being called and misdirected to the wrong polling station in the last federal election, and their probe has centred on Guelph. The Liberals ultimately held the riding in the May 2 ballot and even increased their margin of victory.
But Elections Canada alleges somebody in the campaign of Conservative candidate Marty Burke had a “customer relationship” with RackNine, an Alberta firm that distributes telephone messages and was used in the attempt to misdirect voters in Guelph. It says in court filings it believes this relationship “related to the misleading calls made to Guelph area electors.”
Agency investigator Allan Mathews says in court documents that he found Guelph Conservative campaign phones called RackNine 30 times during the election campaign, but he nevertheless found no Burke campaign receipts for payments to the Alberta company.
“I believe the individuals(s) behind the misleading calls … would not want a local campaign to be identified with the calls, as they amount to improper activity, and consequently I believe that any expense would likely be omitted from a campaign return,” Mr. Mathews said in the court filing. ..
Elections Canada’s Mr. Mathews said in court filings he believes the Guelph robo-calls are linked to a Virgin Mobile disposable cellphone registered to the improbably named “Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street” in Joliette, Que. The inspiration for this alias is unknown, but there is a Pierre’s Poutine restaurant in Guelph.
Disposable phones – also called “burner phones” – are prepaid phones with lax registration requirements.
The alias Pierre Poutine hid the identity of whomever owned the cellphone, which was only activated in late April of 2011.
NDP MP Pat Martin pounced on the use of a disposable phone, saying it shows how untoward the scheme was. “Only dope dealers and Hells Angels and Tony Soprano use burner cellphones,” he said.
It turned out to be an exceptionally important piece of evidence for Elections Canada.
The pursuit of power, once again it would seem, is more powerful than any aphrodisiac and it seems, now, incredibly, that where there was once only smoke, there is now a fire, that is a political fire demanding the Prime Minister's firefighting skills and squad.
A sponsorship scandal in Quebec, by a few "bag-men" freelancing on their own under the umbrella of the Liberal Party has done deep damage to the Liberal "brand."
However, interferring with the democratic right to vote of Canadians for the alleged purpose of turning them away from their legitimate voting stations is something we might read about in a banana republic and barely raise an eyebrow, simply because it is so common.
While there is some "evidence" in this story trickling out into the national media, and there will likely be more, and while the Prime Minister will likely have to answer some questions in Question Period in the House of Commons, the real question is how seriously will this "phonegate" damage the Conservative Party?
And that will depend, once again, on how Harper "frames" the issue, and whether the reporters accept that framing, and whether the story develops the kind of legs that brings about a public inquiry.
If that should happen, and the story brings witnesses to testify under oath, in front of national television cameras, then there might be some damage to the Conservative brand. However, this story is still in the incubator stage, waiting for a full blown disclosure, and we can all be sure that if the story has a single or even two operatives, it is sadly likely that it will not do serious harm to the government.