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The Globe and Mail

Don’t judge the Conservatives’ push-me, poll-you tactics

On Tuesday, after initial denials, the federal Conservative Party acknowledged that it was behind automated telephone calls received in Saskatchewan.

The calls, which masqueraded as an opinion survey, appear to have been a classic "push poll" designed to plant opinions rather than harvest them. They warned that "Saskatchewan values" would be undermined because urban areas would be pitted against rural ones by changes to the province's riding boundaries proposed by the independent Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission.

The failure to indicate, as rules require, during the calls – or on either of the messages callers heard if they called back the number, or when the party was specifically asked about its involvement – that the calls were being made on behalf of the Conservatives was blamed on "internal miscommunication."

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And haven't we all worked at places like that?

Why, for a while I waitressed at a small café where the lovely owner was under the entirely false impression that I understood Ukrainian. If there were dirty dishes near her when she spoke to me, I simply intuited that she wanted them cleaned and began washing, while smiling eagerly and nodding enthusiastically, all the while hoping that she wasn't telling me that her beloved dog had just died or that I was fired.

I either worked there or was fired there for quite a while. We internally miscommunicated our way through many a lunch rush.

I imagine that had that nice lady ever tried to impart to me that I must never ask the customers whether, for example, knowing that the borscht at a competing café was made with cat-urine stock would make them more or less likely to dine there, I might have ended up asking just such a question.

We shouldn't be too quick to judge.

Let's instead take a cue from Conservative MP Brad Trost, who, when questioned regarding the calls, said, "I don't think there was anything wrong with the robo-call. I think it was good and accurate information and we should stand behind it."

Then Canada's Candide went on to add, "I didn't hear it. I don't know the script. Don't know anything. … One of my colleagues had it at her residence and her husband got it and he said it was fine. I'll take his word for it."

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We may have lost the penny this week, but I hope we coined the word "Trostful," which I will define as "marked by a total belief in the reliability, truth and strength of anything your colleague tells you was said to her by her husband, or similar evidence."

The most Trostful interpretation of the Conservatives' push poll is that in their anxiety over what they genuinely believe to be a threat to core Saskatchewan values – and certainly not out of any fear that it might cause the party to lose one or two seats in the next election – mistakes were made. Nothing less than the Saskatchewan way of life was at stake, remember. No one was thinking straight.

Things got said. Memos got written. Then deleted. Perhaps a Web hosting and marketing service was called and discussions were had about how best to allocate Conservative Party resources in the face of this looming crisis?

Should they spend what money they had sending out recorded messages to endangered rural Saskatchewan voters in the hopes of reversing the course of history? Or should they accept that all would soon be lost, and set out, Alan Lomax-style, to record the songs of this soon-to-vanish culture before its voices were lost forever?

It looks as if they decided on the send-out-recorded-messages option. Which was optimistic of them. They should be applauded for that.

Maybe, in the stress of the whole affair, a Conservative staffer began drunk-robo-calling: "I'm calling on behalf of the government of Canada to inform you that you are gorgeous, eligible to vote, and yes, that is a polling station in my pants."

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It will be up to the CRTC to decide if a fine should be levied over the calls. The nature of the "internal miscommunication" may never be revealed.

Indeed, by Wednesday, the Conservatives appeared to have lost interest in challenging the boundary changes. The traditional electoral boundaries to which the people of Saskatchewan cling, along which they lay their traplines in the winter and hang their clothes in the summer, may indeed be lost forever.

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