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lawrence martin

The robo-call jury is still out. The story might be overblown. It's not Robogate unless more evidence is forthcoming.

What fuels suspicion, however, is the trend line of controversial actions and allegations of dirty tricks by this government. That's why it's not so easy to believe Conservative protests of innocence in the robo-calling scandal. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Stephen Harper, a hands-on prime minister with a history of warring with Elections Canada, dismissed the affair as "a smear campaign" by sore losers.

To cast a bit of light, let's go back to the 2008 election in the closely contested B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. The incumbent was the apple-cheeked Conservative Gary Lunn. Midway through that campaign, Julian West, the NDP candidate, dropped out owing to revelations of a public nudity scandal from years earlier. But his withdrawal didn't come in time to get his name off the ballot.

The federal election was on Oct. 14. At dinnertime on Oct. 13, an automated phone message went out urging constituents, strangely enough, to vote for Mr. West. And it appeared to have some effect: He received 3,667 votes, almost 6 per cent of the total. A poll a few days earlier had showed him at 1 per cent. This was good news for Mr. Lunn. The bulk of those votes might otherwise have gone to the Liberal candidate, who lost to Mr. Lunn by 2,625 votes.

When news of the election-eve robo-calling surfaced, Liberals were naturally suspicious of the Conservatives. Who else could have been the source of the automated calls? The Liberals or Greens wouldn't have wanted anyone to vote for the NDP, because it would have split the vote. As for the NDP, why would it make a last-minute push for a candidate who had resigned?

In an interview this week, Byng Giraud, the Lunn campaign manager, denied any involvement with an automated-call operation. Maybe the NDP had been behind it, he speculated, because of the per vote subsidy that each party received under the rules back then. But even if spoiled ballots were counted for the subsidy, the expense of a robo-call operation would likely have been higher.

After the election, Elections Canada took what Liberals viewed as a cursory look at the matter and was unable to determine the source of the calls. Will Horter, who was from the group Conservation Voters of B.C., which was very active in the campaign, heard that Elections Canada and Telus couldn't identify the source because the robo-calls were made from the United States. He put out a blog titled Karl Rove Comes to Canada? Today, we see media reports suggesting that some of the robo-call tracks lead to U.S sourcing.

Mr. Horter, having organized some robo-calling himself on environmental issues, is well familiar with them. They're expensive and they require a target list, a voter I.D. list, a call centre and a lot of expertise. The Conservatives, he said, had the most sophisticated voter identification operation in the country.

Mr. Giraud, the Lunn campaign manager, was categorical: "Nobody has ever asked me to do dirty tricks." But it's conceivable they were done without his knowledge. The party had a separate team, he said, that worked on swing ridings. It's also possible the Conservatives weren't the source at all.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May now represents Saanich-Gulf Islands. She and Mr. Horter and others are given to wonder whether the riding was a robo-call pilot project. Mr. Harper said on Wednesday there was no project, never mind pilot.