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Whatever became of the investigation into the Alberta PC Party's purloined list?

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Alberta PC Party President Bill Smith

Now that the Alberta Progressive Conservatives have chosen a new leader, and that new leader's been sworn in as premier -- Alison Redford, for those of you who've slept through the past few days -- an important file from the days of the party's leadership contest remains open and needs to signed off before we all scurry away to cover cabinet shuffles, the creation of massive human services ministries and the like.

To wit: Who took the party's membership list and gave it to the Calgary Herald? This question is one of those not-so-ancient mysteries that deserve to be solved, in the name of openness, transparency, the right to privacy and the other core values we all agree on here in our Albertan democracy.

Alert readers will recall the storm that broke on Sept. 13 when the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal published a poll of Tory Party members by Environics Research Group that put Alison Redford in a strong second place behind then-front-runner Gary Mar in the race to lead the Alberta Conservatives.

It didn't take long for plenty of observers to realize that the 22,000-name list of card-carrying Conservatives that Environics used had to come from somewhere, and probably ought not to have been given to a newspaper or found its way into the hands of a private polling company.

The next day, Conservative Party President Bill Smith issued a stinging rebuke on the party's website of whoever allowed the "unauthorized and inappropriate use" of the party membership list. That commentary has since been removed from the Tory website, but may still be viewed here.

Smith denied the PC Party had anything to do with giving the list to the pollster and revealed that, whichever campaign did release the list had broken a signed "confidentiality agreement not to disclose or disseminate the membership list prior to receiving it."

He assailed Environics for using the list, and called into question the pollster's conclusions. Well, as subsequent events have shown, say what you will about the company's use of the list, its poll at least got the general trend of voters' sentiments right by showing Redford's support 11 points behind that of Mar. The actual spread after the first-ballot vote on Sept. 17, however, was 22 points in favour of Mar. The survey had a stated margin of error of 3.5 per cent.

In the event of the final vote on Oct. 1, which Redford carried narrowly by 37,104 to 35,491 over Mar when candidate Doug Horner's supporters' second choices were added in, there was a difference of only 1,613 votes. She was sworn in as premier Friday.

"The Progressive Conservative Association is very concerned with respect to the recent use of what appears to be a private Party membership list by a public research company," Smith said at the time. "Any unauthorised and inappropriate use of our Association's private membership lists is absolutely unacceptable. The privacy of our members is of paramount importance to myself and our organization."

As was said then in this space, "the simplest explanation is that one of the campaigns provided the list to the newspaper, which passed it on to the pollster, which then used it to conduct the poll."

However, the next logical question -- which campaign? -- has not yet been satisfactorily answered.

At the time, Alberta Diary was criticized by a reader for using a photo of Lucille Ball as a little jab to suggest that someone had some 'splainin' to do. The reader argued that this unfairly pointed to the campaign of the only female candidate, Redford. My reader asked: "Why not use your investigative journalism skills to get at the truth in this incident, to find out who is actually culpable before affixing blame?"

Fair enough, I guess, although there will be very little original research on this blog beyond Googling until someone offers to pay me to write it. However, I plead guilty to the writer's conclusion about my hypothesis because it was pretty obvious then as now that Redford's campaign had the most to gain from the revelation of the poll's results. Doubts were cast on whether the list itself was a fair sample by some critics.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a politician in possession of a good poll must be in want of a journalist.

Sorry. Couldn't help myself. To put this another way, it is well understood in politics that publicizing favourable poll results can be used to give a campaign a turbo-boost of credibility and momentum. This is especially true in a race like the Conservative leadership contest in which opponents of one candidate, say Gary Mar, may have to make up their minds which alternative candidate is in the best position to block the one they oppose. An argument can be made that this is exactly what happened in this case.

So while the evidence, such as it is, does not provide a clear verdict about who did the deed, Redford's campaign will obviously remain Suspect No. 1 until there is some evidence to contradict the obvious inference it was her team that had the most to gain.

Smith signed off his statement by promising "we will be contacting all leadership campaigns regarding this issue."

So whatever came of those queries? Does the Conservative Party intend to get to the bottom of this matter? And if they do, who will be told and what will be done?

Don't ask me.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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