The House of Commons has unanimously agreed to boost the powers of Elections Canada as the country's electoral watchdog is closing in on "Pierre Poutine," who it alleges launched fraudulent robo-calls from a residence in Guelph in the last election.
The Conservatives, attacked from all sides over allegations of electoral fraud during the last three weeks, sided with the NDP's call to provide more tools to Elections Canada to monitor spending by political parties and the activities of phone companies during elections.
The move came as Elections Canada is tracking a residence in Guelph, Ont., where a home computer accessed the robo-call account that was set up with a cellphone registered in the name of "Pierre Poutine," a source said. The computer's IP address is seen as the clearest fingerprint yet that could lead Elections Canada to the person behind the fraudulent election-day phone calls that directed voters to the wrong polling station in the Ontario riding of Guelph.
The opposition has hit the Conservative Party at every turn with questions about the robo-call controversy in Guelph over the last three weeks, stating that dozens of other ridings were affected by similar fraudulent tactics.
On Monday evening, the House of Commons voted unanimously – 283 to 0 – in favour of an NDP motion calling on the government to provide more powers to Elections Canada within six months. In particular, the proposed amendments to the Elections Act would force political parties to provide more financial documents to Elections Canada upon request, and call on phone companies to register with Elections Canada if they provide voter-contact services to political parties during elections.
Still, Elections Canada said on Monday that the bulk of the 31,000 messages it has received from Canadians concerning fraudulent robo-calls in the 2011 ballot were form letters, and not specific complaints related to actual fraudulent or harassing phone calls.
"The majority of those contacts were made via automated forms or online form letters," agency spokesman John Enright said.
Form letters such as those generated by the activist website Leadnow.ca – which encourages Canadians to submit them – do not spell out an allegation about specific robo-calls but merely raise concern about the subject.
Elections Canada refused to say how many of the calls or e-mails it received from Canadians were dedicated to reporting specific complaints of fraud or harassment.
During Question Period, the Conservatives tried to turn the tables on opposition attacks over the Guelph robo-calls by hammering the Liberals over automated calls made by Grit candidate Frank Valeriote during the 2011 campaign.
The message attacked Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke as anti-choice on abortion, but it did not tell listeners that it was funded by the Liberal campaign. Mr. Burke lost the election to Mr. Valeriote.
"The member for Guelph paid for illegal robo-calls that concealed the fact that calls came from his Liberal campaign," Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, alleged in the Commons.
"They broke the CRTC regulations; they broke Elections Canada laws."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae dismissed the accusation against Mr. Valeriote and called for a royal commission to investigate allegations of fraudulent robo-calls across dozens of ridings in the 2011 election.
"I can assure the honourable member nobody on this side has anything to fear from a royal commission," Mr. Rae said. "We ask for it, we demand it, and the people of Canada require it."
Elections Canada has stated in court documents that the creator of the Guelph robo-call account used the alias of "Pierre Poutine" to purchase a disposable cellphone two days before last year's election. Sources said the robo-calls were paid for with an anonymous, prepaid credit card.
While "Pierre Poutine" tried to cover all tracks, experts said that he or she made mistakes. The biggest one was using the disposable cellphone to set up an account with robo-call operator RackNine Inc., and then allowing that cellphone number to appear on the call displays of the recipients of the message.
Elections Canada started tracking that phone number in the days after the May 2 election, slowly retracing electronic footprints all the way to RackNine and now the IP address of the computer used to contact that company.