Canada: Stephen Harper must show robocalls scandal is more incompetence than malice

01/03/2012 08:42

Chris Wattie/Reuters; AFP files

Stephen Harper would be wise to keep Richard Nixon's political adage in mind: “It’s not the crime that kills you, it’s the cover up.”

The current frothing at the mouth on Parliament Hill over robocalls brought to mind a couple of pearls of wisdom that are true and appropriate in all times and all situations.

The first was Napolean’s contention: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

The second was George Bernard Shaw’s quip: “Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.”


Maybe I just haven’t grasped the situation but I am suspicious of the conspiracy theory. It seems more than reasonable to suggest that person or persons unknown, linked to the Conservative Party, attempted to misdirect Liberal and NDP supporters in the Guelph area to fake polling stations during last year’s general election, in a bid to suppress their vote. This stinks – it’s wrong, immoral and, likely, illegal.

But it is a huge leap to suggest that this behaviour was replicated in “up to 40 ridings,” as some members of the opposition are alleging. There is no evidence to suggest that voter suppression was co-ordinated or systemic.

If such a campaign did take place, it would amount to co-ordinated stupidity. The men and women in the Conservative war-room are many things but stupid they are not. A number of the ridings alleged to have been targeted were won comfortably by Tory candidates, such as the Niagara Falls constituency of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, won by 16,000 votes.

“I don’t see the benefit,” said one senior Conservative, who worked on the election campaign.

Another Tory operative said he couldn’t understand the motivation for electoral fraud. “Why take a risk in a risk-averse environment? You’d only do it where the risk has a high return, which it doesn’t here. The culture of the party is not one conducive to freelancing. If you do, you get frog-marched out of the door and dispatched for life.”

Both said Guy Giorno, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, who acted as campaign manager last year, would not have tolerated such tactics. Mr. Giorno is said to have employed a full-time compliance officer to ensure the party didn’t break any electoral rules.

If the orders didn’t come from the top, could such a campaign have been carried out by a rogue operator at riding level? Not likely say the handful of campaign veterans I canvassed. For starters, who would have fronted up the $30,000 or so such a co-ordinated effort would have cost? Riding associations can barely fund their own campaigns. Secondly, the Tory voter identification database, the Constituent Information Management System, is highly compartmentalized and riding level operatives would not have had access to voter IDs for other parts of the country. Even regional organizers had limited access.

The companies that compile much of that information may have had access to CIMS and the opportunity to re-purpose a legitimate purchase order but, in doing so, would they have risked their livelihoods, their reputations, not to mention their liberty? It’s possible, but the ridings alleged to have been targeted don’t match up to those where voter ID companies like Campaign Research or Research Management Group were working for the Conservatives.

The government’s defence in Question Period was that Elections Canada moved 127 polling stations during the campaign, which they said must have caused confusion for thousands of Canadians. Since no-one has total recall, not even Liberals, this may explain at least some of the people coming forward to say they remember getting calls about polling stations being shifted, they allege.

This seems plausible for some of the reaction to this story, which is not to suggest that dirty tricks were not perpetrated during the 41st general election. Of course, they were – it was ever thus. From the Pacific Scandal in 1873 to the obscure case in Nova Scotia where the provincial government won a by-election by acclamation, after posting the public notice declaring the date on a buoy offshore (but within the riding boundary), skullduggery is a hallmark of Canadian elections. Veteran campaigners admit openly their side called Jewish voters on the Sabbath and said they were contacting them on behalf of their political rivals. One former candidate recalls his campaign manager super-glued shut the door of his main opponent’s office on election day.

But these kind of tactics fall short of the “elaborate web of under-handed vote suppression tactics” that interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has alleged.

At this stage, there is no evidence of a co-ordinated campaign to misdirect voters. Black ops across 30 or so ridings would have required thousands and thousands of calls, yet the only audio evidence to date is from Guelph.

At the same time, it does look as if the problem is more widespread than just one rogue operative at riding level.

Stephen Harper clearly thinks the rot may extend beyond Guelph – he looked rattled in Question Period, muttering to himself as he sat down after replying to an NDP barb. When he is under pressure, Mr. Harper tends to fight or take flight. On this occasion, he lashed out, pointing out the NDP launched its own dirty tricks robocall campaign against Liberal floor-crosser Lise St-Denis earlier this month.

Watching his performance, the image of another historic figure was conjured up – Richard Nixon – who coined the memorable political adage: “It’s not the crime that kills you, it’s the cover up.”

The government knows this story could hurt them if they don’t prove to everyone’s satisfaction that this is more like a bicycle accident than the collapse of democracy in Canada.

National Post

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