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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Harper 'not opposed at all' to giving elections watchdog more teeth Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has surprised the Opposition by saying his party supports giving new powers to Elections Canada that would make it easier to investigate allegations of electoral misdeeds, including calls designed to suppress votes.

Nycole Turmel, the Interim NDP Leader, began the daily Question Period Wednesday by asking if the government would vote in favour of her party’s motion Thursday that would strengthen the abilities of the election agency. The motion 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.

Mr. Harper replied that the Conservatives “are not opposed at all to that proposal.”

When the Chief Electoral Officer previously asked the procedures and House affairs committee for the additional powers, the Conservatives on the committee rejected the request.

After the question session ended, NDP MP David Christopherson said it is “wonderful” the Conservatives appear to have changed their minds. But he also seemed puzzled by the move.

“They’re saying no, they don’t want to give the Chief Electoral Officer those powers, they refuse to do it in committee, refuse to put it in the report. And now the Prime Minister seems to indicate that they’re ready to support our motion that would do exactly that,” Mr. Christopherson said. “So you know, it looks like there’s some gymnastics going on here.”

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, meanwhile, arrived at Question Period equipped with the government’s responses to anticipated allegations about the so-called robo-call scandal in which the opposition says calls were made to discourage their voters from casting a ballot in the last election.

But that meant Mr. Del Mastro, the Conservative MP for Peterborough who has been his party’s designated front man on the matter, had little room to pivot when hit with questions that did not quite match the answer.

Francis Scarpaleggia, the Liberal MP for Lac-Saint-Louis in Quebec, said he was contacted last week by a voter who said she received two calls during the spring election campaign. The first was a live call asking her if she was going to vote for the Conservative candidate, to which she replied she was not.

Then “on election day she received a robo-call telling her that her polling station had changed,” he said. “I would like to know how the Prime Minister would explain this strange coincidence. Also how would he explain it given the fact that there were no Liberal robo-calls in Lac-Saint-Louis during the election campaign?”

Mr. Del Mastro, who is also the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had just finished telling one MP after another the Conservative party believes the opposition parties were responsible for the calls. And, even though Mr. Scarpaleggia had just explained that there were no Liberal robo-calls into his riding, Mr. Del Mastro did not stray from his script.

“We are fully assisting Elections Canada and we will provide them with any documents they would like to see in this regard. But what we do know, and we have no evidence on this at all as the opposition has not been forthcoming, is that they have paid millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands of calls,” Mr. Del Mastro told the House. “Before they continue these baseless smears, they should prove that their own callers were, in fact, not behind these reports.”

Separately, three quarters of the respondents to a Forum Research telephone poll of 1,677 randomly selected Canadians that was conducted on March 2 and 3 said they were aware of the robo-call issue. A majority – 55 per cent – said by-elections should be held in ridings where it is proven that misleading calls were made.

One out of 10 people surveyed by Forum said they received an automated phone call about their poll location in the last election and two per cent of the respondents said they not only received calls but the directions they received were incorrect.

Projected to the universe of 12.5 million Canadian households, the polling firm said that would represent about 250,000 households in which people claim they received misleading robo-calls.

“It’s a lot of people,” said Lorne Bozinoff, the president of Forum Research. “It’s a huge number on close ridings.”

The poll is expected to accurately reflect the views of the entire Canadian population within a margin of 2.39 percentage points 19 times in 20.

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