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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper apologized for campaign-rally ejections at a campaign stop in Vaughan, Ont., on April 7, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper apologized for campaign-rally ejections at a campaign stop in Vaughan, Ont., on April 7, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Cone of silence tightens on Tories Add to ...

Some Conservative candidates across Canada are emulating Stephen Harper's tightly scripted election campaign by refusing to attend all-candidates debates or appear before the media.

The Conservative Leader has earned much criticism for avoiding unscripted forums, a practice that opponents are calling "a bubble campaign." Even so, many local Conservative candidates, both incumbents and challengers, are adopting it as their game plan. Some other Tory candidates, however, say they are only too happy to joust with their opponents.

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The phenomenon appears most pronounced in Alberta, where Conservatives hold every riding but one.

In Calgary East, Tory incumbent Deepak Obhrai has come under fire for being the only candidate not to respond to an invitation for an all-candidates debate on Tuesday.

"In the interest of the democratic process, your attendance as the incumbent MP is an absolute must," campaign worker Aman Hayer wrote on behalf of Liberal candidate Josipa Petrunic. " You owe it to your constituents."

Calgary-Nose Hill Tory incumbent Diane Ablonczy has also indicated she may boycott any all-candidate forum.

But this shyness is hardly an Alberta-only phenomenon. Julian Fantino, who snatched the Toronto-area riding of Vaughan away from the Liberals in a by-election last November, refused to attend all-candidates debates in that campaign and has indicated he's unlikely to do so now.

In the northern Ontario riding of Sault Ste. Marie, some residents have complained that their efforts to follow Tory challenger Bryan Hayes on Twitter have been blocked.

Incumbent Conservative Ed Holder has refused to participate in an all-candidates meeting on health care in his London West riding, saying it is his policy not to attend single-issue debates.

The peekaboo nature of some campaigns has also extended to the media. Conservative candidate Damian Konstantinakos was the only no-show when CBC radio interviewed the candidates for Ottawa Centre, currently held by the NDP.

And when CTV's Power Play examined the battleground riding of Ajax-Pickering east of Toronto this week, Liberal incumbent Mark Holland was happy to be interviewed but Conservative challenger Chris Alexander couldn't find the time.

However, other Conservatives - from incumbent Gail Shea in the Prince Edward Island riding of Egmont, to Edmonton Centre Conservative incumbent Laurie Hawn, to Mark Strahl, who is seeking to inherit his father Chuck Strahl's seat in the British Columbia riding of Chilliwack - are happy to debate their opponents.

In hotly contested ridings, Conservatives are more likely to agree to attend debates. In Edmonton-Strathcona, the only Alberta riding held by an opposition party, Conservative challenger Ryan Hastman has agreed to two debates with NDP incumbent Linda Duncan and others.

It's a question of personal choice, said Calgary Southeast incumbent Jason Kenney, who said he would be happy to debate his opponents.

"Each candidate takes their own approach," he said on Thursday. But he believes all-candidates debates can be of dubious worth.

"Often, you attract a few dozen people, all of whom are hard-core partisans," he observed. "They're often not debates so much as serial monologues."

The no-show policy has the Conservatives' opponents crying foul.



With reports from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton, Gloria Galloway in Surrey, B.C, and Carly Weeks in Toronto

Follow us on Twitter: @danlebla, @JohnIbbitson

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