Hit by allegations of electoral “black ops,” the Conservative party is insisting it runs clean campaigns and that any illegal phone calls in the last election were the work of local officials who will be banished from future races.
The NDP and the Liberals said a series of automated crank calls, which disrupted the election by misinforming voters about their polling stations in dozens of ridings, influenced tight races across the country and signal a further deterioration of democratic rights in Canada.
The parties charged that the alleged interference is in line with official Conservative tactics, including financial transfers to bypass spending limits in the 2006 election and recent robo-calls designed to undermine a long-time Liberal MP in Montreal.
“The boys in the black ops department will call these voter-suppression techniques to give it some semblance of legitimacy,” NDP MP Pat Martin said of last year’s election-day phone calls. “In my view, there is nothing legitimate about cheating and there never will be.”
The Conservatives distanced themselves from allegations of dirty tricks. Speaking during an Arctic visit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected any official connection with the phone calls that were made using an Edmonton firm, RackNine Inc., that frequently works on Tory campaigns.
“Our party has no knowledge of these calls. It’s not part of our campaign,” Mr. Harper told reporters. “Obviously, if there is anyone who has done anything wrong, we will expect that they will face the full consequences of the law.”
In a statement, the Conservative party’s 2011 campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, said “if anyone on a local campaign was involved, they will not play a role in a future campaign.”
Mr. Martin shot back that it would be unacceptable for the Conservatives to scapegoat a junior staffer for the matter, which is being investigated by Elections Canada.
“The facts as we know them to date would indicate a well-orchestrated, widespread conspiracy from the top, not some rogue punk out in the boondocks,” said the NDP MP, who called for a public inquiry to clear up the issue.
Liberal MP John McCallum said he hopes the investigation by Elections Canada will be a deterrent against the proliferation of U.S.-style political tactics.
“Even if it’s just one seat, it’s important,” he said. “I’m not saying this would make a difference in terms of a Liberal majority government, but in a democracy those who practise dirty tricks to subvert democracy should be caught and punished.”
The Liberal party and the NDP said their national campaigns have never retained the services of RackNine Inc.
The company frequently works with right-wing parties, but it does not control the messages that are sent out by its robo-callers. The firm’s president said he is co-operating with the investigation and has offered information on the account used to send out crank calls.
“I was shocked and distressed to learn that some party had used our services to try and disrupt voting during the 2011 federal election. We take these allegations very seriously,” RackNine president Matt Meier said in a statement.
Mr. Meier added that his firm’s goal is to help campaigns contact voters in a bid to encourage them to exercise their democratic rights.
Aside from the written statement and Mr. Harper’s terse comments, the Conservatives refused to answer further questions on the matter. Elections Canada said it does not comment on investigations.
Still, the Commissioner of Canada Elections, who enforces the Elections Act, said in a report to Parliament he is investigating complaints about “crank calls designed to discourage voting, discourage voting for a particular party, or incorrectly advise electors of changed polling locations.”
Controversial phone calls were made in ridings across the country in last year’s election, including fundraising calls in the middle of the night or calls to Jewish voters on the Sabbath. The most serious complaints relate to calls in which an automated voice sent voters to the wrong station, a situation that occurred in the Ontario riding of Guelph, among others.
Overall, the NDP and the Liberal party said the messages were designed to suppress the participation of their supporters in the election in swing ridings that were targeted by the Conservative party.
With a report from Tamara Baluja