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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Lacking 'hand' in robo-call debate, Tories ought to try humility Add to ...

Despite the bluster, the best minds inside the Conservative tent are likely having robo-conniptions. A tough lot, they’ve stared down trouble successfully many times. But this could become their toughest challenge yet.

The Conservatives came to office as the party of rectitude, and respect for the average hockey mom and dad. They had what Jerry Seinfeld used to call “hand.” Their pitch to voters, paraphrased, went something like this: “Grits tried to steal your money, we won’t. We won’t mollycoddle criminals, consort with separatists or conspire with socialists. We’ll cut the GST you hate and throw in a tax break for your kid’s hockey equipment. We are your kind of people.”

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It was an all-out effort to make conservatism more relevant to middle class, mainstream Canada. And it worked, to a point.

As they struggle to contain the robo-call mess, some Conservatives appear tempted to just ride the high horse and remind everyone “we won the election, and you all lost.” Tempting it may be, but it’s like drinking a bottle of whisky to dull the pain of a broken leg. It won’t re-set the leg – and a hangover is guaranteed.

Regardless of where the facts ultimately take this story, it’s hard not to think the Conservatives would be better off sticking with a more humble line.

It might all be the work of a rogue campaign zealot. Heaven knows, every party has workers with enthusiasm surpluses and ethics deficits. But now, even the Conservative Party of Canada is unsure that’s what happened. As good as it is to take folks at their word, do Canadians who are following this story buy that the government doesn’t know anything about what really happened?

Until we know more, it’s worth pondering what the real risk is for the Conservatives if this proves to be something more than a solitary Pierre Poutine? Here’s my take.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent 25 years in the polling business, but I can’t get too worked up that lots of calls were made to lots of people. That annoys a lot of people (so I’ve been told), but it’s not a hanging offence – thank goodness.

Tracing the evidence of who bought calls from what company is important work, essential to getting to the truth of this matter. But in the end, if anything will stick in the minds of voters, it’s not robots or the number of calls they made or in what country the calls originated. It’s what the calls were intended to do.

If – underline if – the allegations prove out, experts will talk about how this is an affront to democracy, and use $5 terms like “voter suppression.” But that’s not what it will be called in your local Tim Hortons.

To those non-partisans who decided to trust the Conservatives in 2006, and grew in number through 2011, this would feel like a slap in the face. Calling folks to mislead them about where to vote is treating people like rubes. It’s playing them for fools – for amusement or advantage or both. It’s a line the Conservatives most definitely will not want to cross.

So if they truly don’t know what happened here, the blustery counterattack strategy is very high risk. If the facts eventually require a climb down, why guarantee that doing so will be even more embarrassing? It’s already clear that something untoward happened, at least in one riding, meaning the Conservatives do not have any “hand” in this debate. But their answers in the House pretend otherwise.

So far, humility is the path less travelled by the Conservatives on this issue. It's a route they may be wise to consider.

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