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Hill Dispatches: The #robocalls scandal is about sabotaging democracy

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In January 2010, Canadians demonstrated by the thousands in defence of democracy, when Harper prorogued Parliament.

The day before the election last May, Elections Canada warned voters that they should ignore phone calls telling them that their polling station had changed -- calls that also sometimes instructed people that they would have to vote at new locations, often far from where they lived.

Earlier in the campaign, a number of opposition party candidates reported that voters in their ridings had been getting aggressive phone calls pretending to be from those opposition members' campaigns, and seemingly designed to antagonize voters.

In both cases, the Conservatives were quick to play see-no-evil-hear-no-evil. None of this has anything to do with us, they said. And our candidates, too, have been victims of dirty tricks.

Callers telling lies were "exercising freedom of speech" -- Tory Minister

One instance for which the Conservative Party did not try to deny responsibility was that involving calls to voters in Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Montreal riding of Mount Royal, last fall. In that case, the callers claimed that Mr. Cotler was planning to retire shortly and encouraged voters to consider the Conservative candidate whenever a by-election was called.

The Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that this sort of behaviour was not a breach of Mr. Cotler's privilege as a Member of Parliament, although the Speaker did take pains to unequivocally condemn the tactic.

The Conservative Government's response?

House Leader Peter Van Loan said those making the calls in the Mount Royal riding were "exercising their freedom of speech."

Canadian scandals were mostly about money -- with a bit of sex thrown in

We have had many scandals in Canadian political history, going back to the Canadian Pacific scandal of 1873, when John A. Macdonald stood accused of accepting a bribe of $360,000 from millionaire businessman Hugh Allan.

That scandal consigned Macdonald to the opposition benches for five years, but did not end his political career. In fact, after he regained power, Macdonald remained Prime Minister for the rest of his life, and his Conservatives hung on to power for another five years after his death.

Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King had his customs scandal in the late 1920s, when, it seems, bootleggers were being named to high positions in Canada's border control system.

But King survived that one and only had to spend a few months in opposition purgatory. He got back in power, with a majority, by turning the election into a sort of referendum on Canadian sovereignty and the prerogatives of the Governor General (then British-appointed) and that trumped concerns about a government that might have been a bit too close to rum-runners!

Since then, of course, there have been many more: the Munsinger affair under Diefenbaker (though only uncovered later); the "Sky Shops" affair of Trudeau's time; the Mulroney government's multiple ministerial malfeasances; "Shawinigate" and, of course, the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien era.

For the most part these were all about money and greed and not much more.

The Munsinger incident was more a matter of lust than filthy lucre, with a bit of national security jeopardy thrown in during those tense and conspiratorial Cold War days.

And in the days before the secret ballot, Macdonald's Conservatives were said to have used Hugh Allan's generous gift to buy voters and thus win the 1872 election.

However, until the current robo-call caper, we have not had a national political scandal focused on what looks to be a conscious and deliberate attempt to subvert the democratic process.

Multiples of same name on ballot and "telegraphing" votes

There were plenty of electoral shenanigans in the old days, of course.

There was a time, for instance, when the party name did not appear next to a candidate's on the ballot. Voters had to inform themselves in advance as to who their party's candidate was.

One trick parties used during this period was to get candidates with the same name as their opponents' onto the ballot. That meant voters not only needed to know the name of their party's candidate, they had to know that candidate's profession, as well. Professions were always listed on the ballot, back then.

Another time-honoured "black op," in the days before picture ID, was to "telegraph" votes.

In such cases, voters would turn up at polls and claim to be someone else. Sometimes that "someone else" was dead, but still on the voters list.

At other times, the "someone else" had simply not yet voted.

Robocall is a complex, sophisticated operation

Today, all of that seems like kids' stuff compared to the last election's sophisticated robocall operation. To carry out the robocall gambit, one would need state-of-the-art tracking systems, including detailed and annotated voters lists, as well as names, phone numbers and addresses.

To sift through a list and identify which names sound Jewish or which voters live in predominantly Jewish (or other ethnic) neighbourhoods requires advanced knowledge and technical tools.

We know the Prime Minister's staff has such tools.

A while ago, they got mixed reviews when they sent thousands of Jewish Canadians cards for the Jewish New Year (which falls in September or October). Some on the receiving end thought it was nice to be recognized and wished well by the Prime Minister. Others found it a bit creepy -- kind of like "Big Brother Stephen knows who you are and what you are, and is watching you!"

Political professionals with the capacity to send personally addressed cards for Rosh Hashanah to a highly targeted population would have the know-how to carry out complex robocall operations, aimed at voters based on ethnicity, religion and notional political affiliation.

But would wet-behind-the-ears, just-out-of-college campaign volunteers or staffers be able to mount such an operation? It seems that someone out there wants you to believe that.

Opposition parties' strategies differ

For now, the opposition in Ottawa will try to continue exerting pressure on the government, with each party choosing its own strategy.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae is calling for an emergency debate in Parliament.

"In my view," Rae wrote in his letter to the speaker asking for the debate, "denying someone the right to vote is such a serious issue, that it merits the immediate attention of the House of Commons."

As for the NDP, Interim Leader Nycole Turmel has said that the robocall scandal is more of a law enforcement than parliamentary issue, and the party is seeking to expand the current investigation with a letter to the Commissioner of Elections detailing more possible dirty tricks -- in these cases, aimed at NDP rather than Liberal candidates.

The ridings NDP members Charlie Angus and Alexandre Boulerice mention in their letter include Thunder Bay-Superior North, Parkdale-High Park and Davenport in Toronto, Sudbury, two ridings in Winnipeg, and a number of other ridings in Windsor, Edmonton, Nova Scotia and Ottawa.

Elections Canada is going to be busy for a while.

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