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john ibbitson

Elections Canada ballot box.The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

On the one side, the Conservatives agree something may have gone wrong in Guelph in the last election, but no one in the national campaign knew about it, and everything else is just so much noise. On the other side, the opposition alleges the governing party may have conducted an organized campaign in ridings across the country to suppress the vote.

In between lies the truth. The job of Elections Canada is to find that truth.

All three parties have done a lousy job of handling the robo-calls affair. The Conservatives have been particularly tin-eared. When the latest allegations arose that people in Guelph, Ont., had received calls purporting to be from Elections Canada sending them to non-existent polling stations, they shrugged, then accused the opposition of exaggerating the problem. Even now, the Tories scatter accusations to the wind: the Liberals themselves are to blame; Elections Canada might have sent out the wrong data.

The Conservatives should have reacted with much greater concern. They should have demonstrably and actively worked to get to the heart of the matter, on their own as well as in co-operation with Elections Canada. They failed to convince anyone that they were as concerned as everyone else.

But they went a long way to containing the damage when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in the House, and the election campaign chair Guy Giorno, on television, declared emphatically that the central campaign did not authorize or know of any deceptions, including alleged harassing calls from people purporting to speak for the Liberal Party who were in fact Conservatives. Unless new evidence emerges to suggest they are not telling the truth, reasonable people will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The opposition parties, the NDP especially, have also handled the matter badly, by declaring this the worst election scandal in Canadian history. Every day more ridings are added to the mix. Tens of thousands of people are suddenly contacting Elections Canada with concerns. But how much of that is real, and how much mischief or mistake? In their hyperbole, the other parties risk diminishing the importance of whatever actually is found.

In between lies the Northern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming, centred on North Bay. People there have reported receiving bogus calls sending them to phantom polling stations. If Guelph is an isolated incident, than what was happening in North Bay? And was it happening elsewhere? And what, if any, is the connection?

That is what Elections Canada, if necessary with the help of the RCMP, must answer. They remain the best hope of getting to the bottom of this affair.

And to the truth, which usually lies somewhere in the middle.

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