Deluged with a staggering volume of grievances about fraudulent calls in the last election, Elections Canada is referring some complainants to another federal regulator – the CRTC – that also has a responsibility to police the country’s phone lines.
The ballot watchdog reported that as of Friday morning it had registered 31,000 “contacts” or messages from Canadians regarding the 2011 federal election campaign and the use of fraudulent, misleading or harassing calls designed to suppress votes. The number vastly outdistances grievances lodged after previous general elections.
It’s not clear if all these complaints are detailed, personal beefs or whether a significant number are merely Internet-generated form letters by sites such as Leadnow.ca.
Still, the overwhelming number of responses is strong evidence that Canadians are concerned that American-style political tricks – such as misleading phone calls to electors – have taken firm root in federal politics.
The sheer volume also suggests the scale of the matter may be too big for Elections Canada to address by itself and the watchdog signalled Friday it may ask the RCMP to help.
The election watchdog is also recommending complainants consider taking their beefs to another federal regulator – one with primary responsibility for policing unsolicited calls and one that has stronger investigative powers.
Responding to former Eglinton-Lawrence MP Joe Volpe’s complaint about phony calls in his riding during the lead-up to the 2011 ballot, Elections Canada recently pointed to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.
It said while it couldn’t help Mr. Volpe, the CRTC “does regulate some basic elements of political telemarketing.”
Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said he wants the telecom regulator to get involved.
“The CRTC has clear jurisdiction here, especially as it relates to robo-calls and we think they definitely should be getting involved and assisting in an investigation,” he said.
“They have a duty to ensure that the technologies under their jurisdiction are not being abused and that their regulations are being followed.”
The communications regulator can investigate unsolicited calling activity without court orders. CRTC investigators can enter a company’s premises through the agency’s power of inspection without asking a judge’s permission. They also have the power to demand the production of information, including telephone records, without a warrant.
The CRTC said as of Friday it had received no complaints stemming from the 2011 election. It can, however, initiate investigations on its own and a spokesman said it’s not the regulator’s practice to reveal when it has opened a probe.
Calls from political parties, under CRTC rules, must identify the identity of the caller, the purpose of the call and why they’re contacting the voter.
The Conservatives are categorically denying responsibility for allegedly fraudulent calls, including in Guelph where Elections Canada has alleged in court filings that a Tory operative hiding behind the alias “Pierre Poutine” used automated calls to suppress the vote of rival parties.
Richard Schultz, a McGill University professor of political science with an expertise in government regulation, says the file falls within the CRTC’s bailiwick and it has an obligation to investigate.
Asked about why it mentioned the CRTC in its letter to Mr. Volpe, a spokesman for Elections Canada referred the question to the telecom regulator.
Elections Canada received 500 complaints about the 2008 election, and 329 for 2006.
The recent explosion in complaints was fuelled by media coverage of alleged fraudulent robo-calls in Guelph, as well as other alleged irregularities in dozens of other ridings.
“Elections Canada has received a high volume of complaints in recent days as a result of MPs and political parties calling on the public to send information to the agency,” the agency said in a statement. “More than 31,000 contacts have been initiated with Elections Canada by Canadians.”
The agency said it could draw upon special budgetary measures to get more resources and hire more investigators.
Elections Canada said, however, it will not comment on specific cases, and will “provide a report to Parliament in due course in regards to this matter.”