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Conservatives bank on robo-call storm blowing itself out

On any other day, the revelation that a Liberal staffer was behind the Vikileaks tweets that sought to embarrass Public Safety Minister Vic Toews would be big news. But Monday was no ordinary day.

The Vikileaks revelations were trumped by opposition attacks on Stephen Harper's Conservatives for allegedly trying to rig the vote in some ridings on May 2.

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Partisans of all persuasions are using new and evolving technologies to turn politics into a Wild West, where rules written and unwritten seem to have gone out the window.

The opposition parties were relentless in Parliament, demanding the Prime Minister accept responsibility for robo-calls that directed voters to non-existent polling stations in certain key ridings on election day.

To which Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied, repeatedly, that if the opposition has "any information that inappropriate calls were placed" then they should "produce that information and give it to Elections Canada." Which, of course, is precisely what they have done. They want the Conservatives to do the same.

Tactically, the Conservatives have three choices: take ownership of the alleged scandal; seek to trump the controversy with something bigger; or bet that it just goes away on its own.

Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, the one obvious diversion, the 2012 budget, is still weeks away. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty could have announced the date of delivery Monday, but didn't, which means the likelihood of a budget that's not ready until April is greater than ever. In the meantime, the road is clear for the opposition to hammer the government day after day with accusations of voter suppression.

The Conservatives could, of course, try to show that they are as alarmed as anyone by the allegations, and as determined to get to the bottom of them. Retired judges are always available for such investigations.

But Mr. Harper well knows the price Paul Martin paid for calling a public inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. He appears to be banking on choice number three: that this controversy will fade with time like all the others – think detainees, Helena Guergis, contempt of Parliament – and the best thing to do is just ride it out.

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One thing we need to remember: The Tories did not rig the election. They received 5,835,270 votes on May 2; the NDP 4,512,411; the Liberals 2,783,076. Shenanigans notwithstanding, the voters decided.

Many of the ridings identified by the opposition parties as places where dirty tricks took place were, in fact, won by opposition parties. (Most famously Guelph, but also Davenport, Hamilton East-Stony Creek, Ottawa Centre, Parkdale-High Park, St. Paul's, Sydney-Victoria, Sudbury, Thunder Bay-Superior North and Windsor-Tecumsah.) Many of the other allegedly targeted ridings were safe Tory seats that needed no underhanded tactics to return the incumbent. (Such ridings include Wellington-Halton Hills, Cambridge, Haldimand-Norfolk, Niagara Falls and Oakville, all of which the Conservatives took by 10,000 votes or more.) So whoever tried whatever, the tactic was unnecessary and futile.

Speaking of failed rogue tactics, Liberal Leader Bob Rae identified one of his own staffers as the source of the @Vickileaks30 stream of tweets that revealed intimate details of Mr. Toews divorce proceedings – a comeuppance, the perpetrator thought, for the Bill C-30 Internet-access bill and for previous Tory misdeeds.

Though this is obviously embarrassing for the Liberals, no one reasonably believes Mr. Rae encouraged such activity. He took full responsibility and apologized to Mr. Toews. He suggested Mr. Harper do likewise on the robo-call affair.

Not likely. Unless and until concrete evidence emerges of greater malfeasance than the isolated incidents in Guelph, the Conservatives will bank on this storm simply blowing itself out.

Follow John Ibbitson on Facebook and Twitter @JohnIbbitson

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