A former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper says last year’s election day robo-calls are of a scale he’s never seen before and warrant a “huge investigation.”
Ian Brodie, who was Mr. Harper’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, said revelations from an Elections Canada probe that has centred on the Southern Ontario riding of Guelph and its local Conservative campaign likely indicate “a very devious local effort that could well lead to charges against several campaign volunteers.”
But he didn’t dismiss the possibility of “a national effort at subterfuge.”
“Something seems to have gone on, on a scale I’ve never seen before,” Mr. Brodie wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Brodie is the second former chief of staff to Mr. Harper to express concern about deceptive robo-calls that directed voters to the wrong polling station in Guelph last May. However, Guy Giorno, who succeeded Mr. Brodie and was the Conservative campaign chair in the 2011 election, has said the national campaign did not attempt to suppress votes of non-Conservative supporters.
Elections Canada has received 700 complaints about misleading calls since reports of its Guelph probe surfaced three weeks ago. Data gathered by media and opposition parties suggest a pattern is emerging across dozens of ridings: Complaints show that Canadians reporting misleading calls had previously been phoned by the Conservative Party to find out how they would vote.
Conservative partisans tried on Friday to tamp down the notion that the problem was bigger than Guelph, releasing records of calls made by an unknown operative who hid behind the alias Pierre Poutine. These records, provided to select journalists Friday, showed that thousands of calls were made to residents of Guelph, and that more than 140 stray calls were dialled to ridings outside the Southern Ontario city – likely in error.
Still, the records don’t explain why many voters outside of Guelph contend they received misleading calls directing them to wrong polling locations within their own communities.
From the onset of last year’s federal election, Guelph was a riding to watch. The national Conservative campaign dispatched Mr. Harper to the city west of Toronto, and several prominent Conservative MPs, including Jim Flaherty and Jason Kenney, visited to lend their support.
Rookie Tory candidate Marty Burke’s prospects of winning appeared strong, with early polling suggesting the airline pilot was within 900 to 1,200 votes of knocking off popular Liberal incumbent Frank Valeriote, a source familiar with the campaign said. But centralized control over messaging frustrated the Guelph team, former campaign workers noted. Mr. Burke, known as a blunt talker, was told to stick to the party’s script.
“The Marty Burke campaign was a stressed-out campaign,” a source said. “It was a campaign that was micromanaged in Ottawa.”
However, with about 10 days to go before the May 2 vote, the national campaign’s interest in the riding “dropped off the radar” and donations for the local campaign dried up, the source said.
Reports that Mr. Burke believed pregnant women should not have an abortion under any circumstance and an incident at the University of Guelph, where a key member of his team was accused of disrupting a mid-campaign special ballot, had apparently scuttled Tory momentum in the riding. It appeared then that Mr. Burke might not even finish in second place.
Local Conservatives had wanted to explain the university ballot-box situation to reporters, feeling it was largely a misunderstanding, but the party’s war room told them to keep quiet.
“They said: ‘We want the story to die. We don’t want it to go anywhere. No response,’” another campaign worker noted. The incident, however, gained national attention and was cited as an example of the Conservative Party’s obsession with control.
Although the author of last May’s robo-calls has yet to be publicly identified, there is a sense that the last-minute tactic was poorly executed and that the responsible party left a number of electronic traces for investigators to track. Elections Canada is combing through internal Conservative Party e-mails and database records as it tries to close in on Pierre Poutine, according to sources. The agency has suggested in court documents that a disposable cellphone was used to trigger the misleading messages.
The election-day confusion worried the Guelph Liberal team. The Grits pleaded with the Greens and NDP to encourage their supporters to vote for Mr. Valeriote. In the end, he won by about 6,200 votes over the runner-up, Mr. Burke.
“The Liberals were running in a panic,” recalled Cameron Adams, who managed the Guelph NDP campaign. “[Mr. Valeriote]really thought that he could easily lose this election.”
Guelph Tory campaign manager Ken Morgan has not responded to repeated requests for comment. In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail this week, Mr. Burke said: “I am not interested in speaking with you.”
While Mr. Burke was a first-time candidate, Mr. Morgan had managed a Tory campaign before. The long-time Guelph resident was the campaign chief for businessman Brent Barr in the 2006 federal election.
Mr. Barr planned to run again for the Conservatives in 2008, but the party rejected his nomination. The move took him by surprise. He said national council told him that he and his team weren’t working hard enough to build support. But Mr. Barr believes the party ousted him because it wanted a star candidate in the race: city councillor Gloria Kovach, who lost the nomination to Mr. Barr.
Ms. Kovach came within about 1,800 votes of defeating Mr. Valeriote in the 2008 vote. After Ms. Kovach’s loss, many local party supporters didn’t believe the Conservatives could defeat Mr. Valeriote in the next election. When the Tory nomination opened in 2009, no one contested Mr. Burke, who had failed twice previously to secure the Conservative candidacy in other ridings in the region.
The 2011 race in Guelph was a bitter battle. The Conservatives and Liberals exchanged accusations of harassment and voter intimidation. Bill Winegard, a former federal Tory cabinet minister and the last Conservative to win the riding in 1988, was called a traitor for supporting the Liberal contender. The Grits, meanwhile, attacked Mr. Burke as anti-abortion in automated calls that weren’t properly identified as Liberal-funded messages.
“It was a nasty campaign between the two of them,” said Mr. Barr, who remains a Tory party member.
Canada’s chief electoral officer may get a chance before the end of March to explain the robo-calls controversy to MPs. Dean Del Mastro, the MP who serves as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, said Conservatives are willing to let elections boss Marc Mayrand appear before a Commons committee and brief MPs on the matter.
He said MPs will vote on the appearance during the week of March 26 – when the House resumes after a week-long break. The head of the election agency has strongly hinted he wants to appear before MPs to give public testimony on the matter.
With a report from Lawrence Martin