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Wildrose deftly defuses robo-call crisis while federal Cons suffer Scotch verdict

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David Yager

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You don't have to agree with Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Party to admire the skill with which it stick-handled yesterday's revelation it had been fined $90,000 by the federal broadcast regulator for a series of improperly identified robo-calls made to voters during the 2012 election campaign.

Compared to the federal Conservative Party's blundering response to its various recent troubles, it seems mildly astonishing the two parties are essentially the provincial and federal branches of the same organization.

Slapped with the significant fine by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Wildrose Party officials responded deftly.

When the CRTC decision was reported by Global TV, party officials fessed up immediately, then followed with an immediate, contrite and seemingly sincere admission they were wrong and a promise never to do it again. They'd already paid their fine by the time the matter was in the news and that was the end of it. There will be no appeal.

Party leaders left the embarrassing admission to David Yager, president of the party's executive committee, instead of Opposition Leader Danielle Smith.

The tone and speed with which the matter was handled was pitch perfect. Under the circumstances, the party's claim it didn't realize it was breaking the rules will sound quite believable to voters. As a consequence, the whole potentially embarrassing business will likely fall off the radar within 48 hours.

Given the size of the fine and the Canadian right's issues with regulators like the CRTC, the temptation must have been strong in Wildrose circles to make a fight out of the dispute -- but someone obviously made a cool-headed assessment of the facts and realized that would only prolong and magnify the agony.

This contrasts dramatically with the federal Cons' ham-handed handling of the continuing Duffygate Senate expense scandal and the coincidental court ruling yesterday in the election fraud case stemming from the last federal vote in May 2011 -- a case less that coincidentally involved Rack 9, the same Edmonton robo-call company that made the Wildrose calls.

In fairness, there’s a significant difference in gravity between the Wildrose Party's failure to identify itself as the source of partisan robo calls and the outright electoral fraud in which targeted Liberal supporters were misdirected to incorrect or imaginary polling stations by callers pretending to be from Elections Canada.

Still, if the federal Conservatives had adopted a similar strategy, contritely admitted they had done wrong, paid the party's debt to society and perhaps tossed in a few extra "overenthusiastic" low-level flunkies to accompany party operative Michael Sona under the bus, the whole affair could have been forgotten by now.

But Prime Minister Harper is almost pathologically incapable of admitting error. His party tried to block the proper investigation at every turn.

Now, in a classic "Scotch Verdict," the judge in the federal case appears to have let the Conservatives off the hook because, despite powerful circumstantial evidence, the facts were well enough hidden to make it difficult to tie the well-established fraudulent activities to the only party in a position to benefit from them.

According to the Globe and Mail, this result clears Harper's Conservatives, Tory candidates and two telemarketing companies of wrongdoing. However, the political reality is quite different. The case is merely "not proven," while the odour of corruption will stick to Harper's party like a miasma.

Moreover, federal Tory pain is bound continue, since the Council of Canadians will now likely take its demand for election results in six ridings to be overturned to the Supreme Court of Canada. Win or lose before the Supremes, the Council's case will continue to bedevil the Harperites.

Given the ways they dealt with these superficially similar cases, you'd almost think the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa were the farm team, and the Wildrose Party in backcountry Alberta were the pros!

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

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