Canada's telecom regulator has launched a sweeping attack on improper automated phone calls by politicians, following a Liberal complaint about anonymous calls to voters in Saskatchewan on behalf of the Harper Conservatives.
The fines of nearly $370,000 were levied against the federal Tories, Alberta's Wildrose Party, the federal NDP, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Liberal MP Marc Garneau, Conservative MP Blake Richards and Edmonton "robo-calling" firm RackNine.
By slapping fines on a cross-section of political parties and politicians Wednesday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission avoided accusations that it's singling out one offender, such as the governing Conservative Party in Ottawa or its provincial cousins.
The calls in question failed to properly identify the party or person responsible for them, as required by CRTC telemarketing rules.
The fines handed down serve notice to Canadian political parties – most of whom employ automated diallers to deliver pre-recorded messages to electors – that the telecom regulator is prepared to clamp down on abuses of this tool.
The actions mark only the second time the commission has levied a fine for out-of-line robo-calls – the first being in 2012.
The CRTC is hinting at more fines to come. "Stay tuned," said Andrea Rosen, the CRTC's chief compliance and enforcement officer.
Ms. Rosen said there is little excuse to plead confusion in 2013.
"Canadians have a right to know who is calling them," she said.
Robo-calls may have exploded in popularity lately, but they're not new and the laws have long been clear. The CRTC official pinned the blame squarely on political parties for "not doing their homework."
"The robo-call rules have been on the books since 1982. We expect that people should understand the rules and should be able to comply with the rules rather easily given the length of time they've been on the books," Ms. Rosen said.
"But we found here we were seeing a series of situations where the rules were not understood – or at least were not complied with."
The CRTC said the fines follow a "wide ranging" investigation – one that apparently grew over time as parties pointed the finger at one another.
The federal Liberals complained to the CRTC in February after the Conservatives admitted to paying for automated phone calls to Saskatchewan voters early this year that criticized proposed changes to federal riding boundaries in Saskatchewan.
Sources say the federal Conservative Party also sent the telecom regulator information about a January, 2012, NDP robo-call campaign in the Quebec riding of St-Maurice-Champlain.
The recorded message in this case did not specify the calls were being made on behalf of the NDP, the CRTC said. The New Democrats had used automated dialling in the riding to rile voters about Lise St-Denis, who quit their party for the Liberal caucus.
Ms. Rosen declined to divulge any information about the source of complaints. "Our investigations are conducted in private, as are all law enforcement investigations."
These robo-calls violations are not tied to misleading automated calls in the 2011 national election that a federal court judge ruled were fraudulent.
The Wildrose Party of Alberta was slapped with the single biggest fine in the Wednesday announcement: $90,000.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said she takes the matter seriously. "I think there was a need for the regulator to step in and they stepped in with a pretty heavy hammer. We're prepared to pay the price as a result of that and I think it's been a good education for everybody who uses these technologies.
"If we had to be an example so that everybody else knows that the CRTC is going to become more diligent at enforcing it then, so be it."
In detailing the penalties Wednesday, the CRTC announced it "received the co-operation of" and reached settlements in five of seven cases: Wildrose, the Ontario PCs, the NDP, RackNine and Mr. Garneau. It did not not include the Conservatives and Mr. Richards on this list. The federal Conservative Party and that Tory MP were fined $78,000 and $14,400, respectively, and now have 30 days to respond or pay the penalty.
The Conservatives announced later Wednesday that they would be paying the fine and emphasized that they had "co-operated fully" with the CRTC, meeting with the regulator and providing documents.
"We appreciate that the CRTC is clarifying rules for all federal political parties and applying them across the board," Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey said.
The CRTC's apparent zero-tolerance policy meant even Mr. Garneau's robo-call – where the message identified it was made on behalf of the Marc Garneau campaign – was caught in the compliance net. His campaign call fell short because it failed to state at the outset of the message that the call was being made on that candidate's behalf and did not provide a postal address, as required under CRTC rules.
Mr. Garneau, who was fined $2,500, called the omissions an inadvertent error and apologized.
Mr. Richards said he believed his robo-call provider was complying with CRTC rules and said "my only intent was to conduct a legitimate, accurate, and nonpartisan survey of my constituents' views."
The fines in detail
Wildrose Alliance, Official Opposition in Alberta
- Violation: Six robocall campaigns seeking voter opinions on various subjects, but did not identify Wildrose as the source of the automated message or provide a mailing address.
- When: March, 2011, and November, 2012
- Fine: $90,000
Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Official Opposition
- Violation: Two robocall campaigns seeking voter opinions on various subjects, but did not include the party’s clear name, address and local or toll-free telephone number.
- When: Sept. 1-7, 2011
- Fine: $85,000
Conservative Party of Canada
- Violation: Robocall campaign in Saskatchewan on proposed changes to electoral boundaries in the province, but the automated message did not identify the Conservatives as the source of the call or include a mailing address.
- When: Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2013
- Fine: $78,000
RackNine Inc., Edmonton-based telemarketer
- Violation: Carrying out 15 robocall campaigns conducted on behalf of a number of political parties for polling, surveying and general communications, but those entities were not identified in the automated message.
- When: March, 2011, and Feb. 1, 2013
- Fine: $60,000
New Democratic Party of Canada, Official Opposition
- Violation: Robocalls in the electoral district of St-Maurice-Champlain, Que., that did not identify the NDP as the source of the call, mailing address and telephone number. The calls connected residents to the office of an MP who left the NDP to join another party.
- When: Jan. 11-20, 2012
- Fine: $40,000
Blake Richards, Conservative MP for Wild Rose, Alta.
- Violation: Two robocall campaigns in his riding that did not identify Mr. Richards as the source or include a mailing address.
- When: August and October, 2012
- Fine: $14,400
Marc Garneau, Liberal MP for Westmount-Ville-Marie, Que.
- Violation: Robocalls made in connection with his bid for the leadership of the Liberal Party did not at the beginning of the automated call state they were being made on Mr. Garneau’s behalf or include a mailing address.
- When: March, 2013
- Fine: $2,500
– Dawn Walton