I have been feeling this overwhelming sense of despair, frustration, and good old-fashioned anger these past couple of weeks, as I’ve watched the so-called Robo-Call Scandal unfold. My growing sense of hostility has been largely directed at Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, who may have broken the law on May 2nd, 2011, by calling non-Conservative voters, pretending to be Elections Canada officials, and misdirecting those voters to incorrect or non-existent polling stations. Right now, it remains to be seen who, exactly, was behind the phone calls (not all of which used Pierre Poutine’s robo-dialler), but evidence is certainly pointing towards someone who must have access to national data stored in the CIMS, the Conservative Party’s voter identification database.
I’ve been following this story through numerous sources, and it’s clear to me that the mainstream media’s reporting isn’t keeping pace with information which is first appearing on the internet from citizen reporters. Of particular interest is a new website which has been put together at http://cdnpo.li/ by tweeter @unfuckwithable (and thanks also to @saskboy for sharing many tweets related to robocalls). I note that the website I’ve identified above encourages everyone not to refer to this as a “scandal”, but to instead call it what it is: “the greatest election fraud in Canadian history”.
I am angry. I’m angry that it’s taken so long for all of this to come to light, given that Green Party Leader Elizabeth May brought these issues to the attention of Elections Canada back on May 19, 2011. The mainstream media seems to have only caught on about a month and a half ago, after access to information requests made to Elections Canada led to the story to “break”. Not that the public is on the receiving end of much in the way of information, either, given that Elections Canada’s investigation is on-going. When Elections Canada’s CEO Marc Mayrand testified at a conveniently scheduled committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa last Thursday, Mayrand had little in the way of specifics to share. Nonetheless, as the NDP’s David Christopherson pointed out, it seemed that the Conservatives were intent on burying any story about Mayrand’s testimony in the media, by scheduling his appearance at a time when most regular Hill reporters were in lock-up reviewing the budget.
What happened on May 2, 2011, is bigger than the Guelph riding, which was the first riding identified by Elections Canada as being under investigation. Similar calls were reported to have been made in Toronto and Winnipeg ridings, here in Sudbury, and interestingly in the Nipissing-Timiskaming riding, where incumbent Liberal MP Anthony Rota went down to Conservative candidate Jay Aspin by a mere 18 votes. In all, it seems that as many as 200 ridings might have been impacted. The scope of this fraud is clearly national in scale. It stretches belief to think that it might have been orchestrated and carried out by a single individual. However, the Conservatives have already thrown one junior staffer involved in the Guelph campaign under the bus, and are doing what they can to make sure that all fingers remain pointed at him.
Look, I don’t know who was behind this illegal activity, although based on what I’ve been reading, it’s likely that someone higher up in the Conservative’s central campaign would have been positioned to have the sort of access necessary to order the calls. Matthew Day, aka bluegreenblogger, wrote an excellent piece about this on March 4th, “Mechanics of Robo-Calling: Not a fluke or rogue campaigner. Someone who had Access did these things”.
Media Should Report the Story, Not Take Sides
Right now, I’m still a little willing to wait for more information to come to light before definitively pointing the finger in a specific direction. My gut tells me otherwise, sure, but I’ll stick with the known facts for now, and I think that’s a reasonable approach. Let’s get all of the facts on the table first before anyone or any organization is proclaimed guilty – or let off of the hook.
However, many in the mainstream media (not surprisingly, particularly Sun Media) have already decided that the Conservative Party should be absolved of any wrong-doing, suggesting that it just makes no sense for the Conservatives to jeopardize the electoral outcome by making fraudulent phone calls. This line of reasoning completely ignores the fact that, prior to the evening of May 2nd, 2011, Conservatives did not know whether they would end up in power the next day, or whether Canada would have a new Prime Minister in the form of Jack Layton.
It is beyond reasonable at this time for some in the mainstream media to use their positions of influence to acquit the Conservative Party in the court of public opinion, given the on-going investigation, and the findings of other journalists. Certainly, the actions of the Conservative Party itself since this story broke have been questionable. The Conservatives, unlike the Liberals and the NDP, have been singularly unhelpful in the investigation, besides agreeing to give Elections Canada broader powers to deal with complaints.
What’s even more unhelpful to Canadians is a compliant, political-party friendly media, which would rather spin news stories than write the truth. Increasingly, what can only be called Conservative Party propaganda is being distributed as “news” from some mainstream media outlets, particularly Sun Media, which owns newspapers such as the Sudbury Star. While Sun Media may be the worst offender, it’s clear to me that other media organizations, for whatever reason, are largely content to be echo chambers for political party’s talking points. Call it what you will, but the days of non-partisan investigative journalism are largely behind us now, and our media is starting to inhabit a strange new realm, where it straddles the lines between “info-tainment” and “propaganda”. In the past, our news media may have provided different opinions to media consumers. Today, increasingly, it’s providing different facts. And that is a troubling trend from those who in the past used to champion the public interest.
Clearly, what’s needed is a national enquiry, which Elizabeth May and the other parties have called for, but which the Conservatives have so far determined that they’re not going to pursue. A public enquiry, however, may be the only way which the public is ever going to get to the bottom of what really happened.
Over the past couple of weeks, the mainstream media’s interest in this story has waned. Two ethical scandals involving Conservative Industry Minister Christian Paradis, an anti-environment budget, and the Auditor-General’s findings slamming the F-35 procurement process have largely changed the media channels on robocalls. That there has been almost a scandal-a-day emanating from the Conservative government over the past month speaks volumes about the fitness of this Party to govern our nation, in my opinion.
However, it’s not just the Conservatives who have some explaining to do. In fact, right now, there’s only one Party which appears to have committed a breach to Elections Canada rules through its own admission. Liberal MP Frank Valeriote admitted that one of his campaign workers made calls to electors in Guelph during the 2011 election campaign, in an attempt to assassinate the character of Conservative candidate Marty Burke. It was revealed that the Liberals broke the rules by making the calls anonymously. In an election campaign, you’ve got to identify that you’re calling on behalf of a candidate, and these calls made by the Valeriote campaign had no such identifier (see, “MP Frank Valeriote owes city an apology, election rival says”, Guelph Mercury, March 13/12).
Look, I understand that there’s going to be a certain amount of shenanigans taking place during an election. Yes, I deplore that kind of behaviour, but I understand that it happens. But telling voters that their poll locations have been changed, or engaging in anonymous smear campaigns crosses the line into law-breaking. Keep in mind that election campaigns are largely financed by the public. Almost three quarters of expenses incurred by candidates, including expenses put toward local and national robo-calling, are recouped by political parties after the election. That’s why it behoves political parties and their candidates to follow the rules. In a very real way, these unethical and illegal calls made in Guelph were made at our expense, literally.
As a result of what’s happened in Guelph, I fully expect that Elections Canada will call for a by-election, and at the very least disqualify Valeriote from participating. If it’s found that Conservative campaigners in Guelph were behind the robocalls misdirecting voters, it’s quite within the realm of possibility that Marty Burke may also be prohibited from running in the by-election.
The NDP and Robocalls
The actions of the NDP, too, have come under a lot of scrutiny over the past couple of months, particularly when former NDP MP Lise St-Denis decided to cross the floor and join the Liberal Party. Shortly after her defection, using a telecommunications company push-poll, the NDP organized a flood of robocalls into her parliamentary and constituent offices, disrupting her staff’s ability to carry out important and necessary governmental work. The push-poll did not identify that it was being carried out by the NDP. Those who received the calls were asked to press a button if they disagreed with St-Denis’ decision to change parties, and those pressing the button were routed to St-Denis’ office without their knowledge (see, “NDP dirty tricks campaign in Lise St-Denis’ riding”, ipolitics, January 16/12).
Constituency and parliamentary offices are not political offices. They are locations where citizens of a riding interact with elected officials. They are staffed by individuals on the government’s payroll. These offices are essentially portals for citizens to access our government. They should not be the target of partisan games.
Further, anonymous push-polls are incredibly insulting to people who receive these calls. Common people are being manipulated by political parties into unwittingly taking part in a partisan scheme, in this case one which disrupts the legitimate business of government. That the NDP chose to express its anger on public governmental institutions and by duping unwitting Canadians…well, to me that speaks volumes about how low the NDP is willing to stoop.
The NDP’s defence, of course, hinged on legality. They claimed that the action itself was not illegal, and therefore somehow justified. That was pretty much the same response given by Industry Minister Christian Paradis when it was revealed that he gave special governmental access to non-registered lobbyist and former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer. Yet in that circumstance, the NDP called for Paradis’ head. The NDP has a bit of a reputation for hypocritical behaviour. In my opinion, it continues to be a well-deserved one.
Frustration Boiling Over
I say, A POX ON ALL OF THEIR HOUSES. I am growing tired and angry at the games being played with voters by political parties. Ultimately, democracy itself is the victim when political parties cross legal and ethical lines in partisan attempts to seize or hold onto power. There’s no question that the democratic health of Canada is eroding, as voter turn-out continues to trend downward at all levels, and as Canadians increasingly tune out of politics altogether.
This can’t go on. I know that I’m not the only one who is feeling angry about this. There are simply far too many unjust and unethical games being played by the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP. I know that many long-time traditional supporters of these parties, including some current members, are disgusted by the actions of the political elites who are making the decisions.
Governing our nation should be about something more than obtaining and holding onto power, yet that appears to be what it’s been reduced to. Whatever happened to good public policy, and putting the interests of Canadians first?
We call our elected officials “public servants”, but I question what’s happened to the idea of public service? In our hyper-partisan political system, where citizen engagement and democracy itself are being victimized by illegal and unethical behaviour, who in Canada is being served by those whom we elect?
This has got to stop. Canadians deserve better.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)
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