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robo-call affair

A protester decries alleged voter suppression during the 2011 federal election at a small gathering on Parliament Hill on March 5, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick

The Harper government is facing pressure to beef up the powers granted to Canada's election watchdog in the wake of a massive outpouring of complaints over allegedly fraudulent telephone calls aimed at discouraging rival voters during the 2011 ballot.

The Official Opposition New Democrats has served notice they are using time Thursday to force a Commons debate on a motion to bolster Elections Canada's investigative strength.

It's an attempt to trap the Conservatives, by either forcing them to agree to expand the watchdog's reach or instead reject the motion and be seen denying it more authority during a serious controversy over alleged election fraud.

The motion calls for legislation within six months to boost Elections Canada's powers, including giving the Chief Electoral Officer the power to request "all necessary documents from political parties to ensure compliance with the Elections Act."

It would also require all telecom companies that provide voter call services during a general election to register with Elections Canada – and require all customers of these companies to have their identities verified and registered.

"Let's take a step toward restoring voter confidence," NDP MP David Christopherson said. "Let's take a step towards fighting voter fraud."

Separately, Tuesday, the Harper Conservatives said they have dropped a long-running legal feud with Elections Canada over whether they exceeded spending limits in the 2006 election campaign that vaulted them to power.

Elections Canada has long alleged the Tory party broke the rules through a so-called in-and-out financing scheme designed to skirt a national campaign spending cap by shifting some advertising expenses to individual candidates in 67 ridings.

The Conservatives, currently beating back allegations they were behind fraudulent phone calls in the 2011 ballot, said they notified the Supreme Court last Friday they would not proceed with an appeal of the "in and out" campaign-financing dispute.

The Tories repaid $230,198 to Elections Canada related to the feud – while insisting everything they did was above board.

"We are agreeing to disagree," said Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey. "The Conservative Party of Canada plays by the same rules as everyone else; we acted under the law as it was understood at that time."

Conservative officials rejected suggestions the battle with Elections Canada was called off because of the robo-calls controversy, saying the party decided to drop the matter before election-fraud allegations surfaced.

Elections Canada's highest-profile investigation into the matter centres on calls made in the riding of Guelph, Ont. – activity it has alleged is connected to the local Conservative campaign and was carried out by an operative hiding behind the alias "Pierre Poutine."

A deluge of additional complaints, however, have been compiled by media and opposition parties who have collected reports of phony phone calls in as many as 70 ridings.

The NDP's Mr. Christopherson predicted the Conservatives will be hard-pressed to reject his motion for more authority to Elections Canada.

"They keep saying they're interested in getting to the bottom of this," the MP said.

"If they don't vote for it I will be very interested in hearing their arguments against it."

The NDP also forwarded complaints of fraudulent election phone calls from 14 ridings to Elections Canada Tuesday.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, attacked the Conservatives for recently ducking an opportunity to give Elections Canada for more power to verify the financial returns of parties.

Elections Canada can't demand that parties provide documented evidence to back up their financial reports after each campaign. The Chief Electoral Officer recently proposed this authority but the Conservative majority on the Commons House and Procedure committee instead picked his second option – having parties hire external auditors to conduct "compliance audits."

The Tories shot back that they chose the option that put the financial burden on parties rather than the taxpayer.

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