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The Globe and Mail

Liberals press elections watchdog to rule on 'reprehensible' Cotler calls

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 13, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae wants the head of Elections Canada to investigate the possibility the Conservatives broke the law by falsely telling constituents in Irwin Cotler's riding the veteran MP was preparing to resign and a by-election would be held.

In a letter Friday to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, Mr. Rae points out the Canada Elections Act states: "No person shall knowingly publish a false statement of the withdrawal of a candidate."

The provision relates to the period after the writ has been dropped and an election campaign is underway. But Mr. Rae argues the calls to Mr. Cotler's riding by the Conservative-affiliated firm Campaign Research Inc. would seem to be the sort of thing the law aims to prevent.

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"Conservative operatives are conducting a campaign to deliberately misinform voters and, in so doing, are widely spreading information about that they know is patently false," the Liberal chief writes.

Mr. Rae argues that, because campaign activities in modern elections now take place well beyond the 36-day writ period, the calls to Mr. Cotler's Mount Royal riding were still a violation of the elections act. If Mr. Mayrand agrees, he says, then the matter should be forwarded to the Commissioner of Canada Elections for an investigation and possible prosecution.

The Interim Liberal Leader also asked Mr. Mayrand to consider whether an amendment to the act is required "to make it explicitly clear that knowingly spreading misinformation that a candidate or officeholder has withdrawn is expressly prohibited – regardless of whether those false statements are made during a writ or at any time during the electoral cycle."

Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of the House of Commons, ruled this week that, although the calls were "reprehensible," he could not find that Mr. Cotler's rights as a parliamentarian had been breached.

Campaign Research boasts that it is a "gold seal" member of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA), the body that oversees the standards of the marketing research industry but it may have to fight to keep that designation.

The MRIA lists 10 principles to which its members must adhere. No. 5 states that they "shall at all times act honestly, ethically and fairly in their dealings with all members of the public, clients, employers, sub-contractors and each other."

Brendan Wycks, the executive director of the MRIA, told The Globe the association has received three inquiries about the conduct of the Conservative-allied firm since Mr. Scheer's ruling.

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Mr. Wycks said the way the calls were phrased might give Campaign Research some wiggle room. The callers apparently began their conversations with constituents by saying: "Some people are suggesting that the current MP may retire…"

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan has told the House of Commons the firm was merely repeating rumours that have been floating around for some time. He defended the calls saying to prohibit them would be to stifle freedom of speech.

Nevertheless the MRIA is taking the complaints seriously. "We have had some inquiries which I believe will result in formal complaints of professional misconduct to the research against Campaign Research," Mr. Wycks said.

If Campaign Research is found to have violated the code, the firm could be censured, suspended or kicked out of the association, depending on the severity of the breach, he added.

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