TORONTO, Canada – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party faces accusations of having used dirty tricks to win its first majority government last year.
Harper has rejected the charge as nothing more than a smear campaign by opposition parties. But Elections Canada, the independent agency that oversees federal elections, is investigating vote tampering in at least one electoral district and has received an unprecedented 31,000 similar complaints from voters across the country.
“We are entering into a kind of Nixonian moment in our political culture, where all kinds of dirty tricks seem to be possible,” Bob Rae, leader of the opposition Liberal party, told reporters. He was alluding to former US President Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 after trying to cover-up the break-in at Democratic headquarters located inside the Watergate hotel.
The Liberals and the New Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, have identified up to 40 of Canada’s 308 voter constituencies — known as ridings — where they say systematic attempts were made to harass voters or prevent them from casting ballots last May.
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Elections Canada is officially investigating the southern Ontario riding of Guelph. Scores of Guelph voters have complained of receiving automated calls claiming to be from Elections Canada and directing them to vote at a polling station that didn’t exist. Elections Canada says it never made such calls.
Court documents filed by Elections Canada indicate they’re looking at links between the Conservative Party campaign and those fraudulent calls. The election watchdog believes the Guelph scheme was orchestrated by a political operative with a disposable cell phone registered to Pierre Poutine — a seemingly fictitious name based on the fries, gravy and cheese concoction popular in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
“Who the hell uses a burner cell phone and is not trying to hide something?” asked Pat Martin, a New Democratic member of parliament. “Only dope dealers and Hells Angels and Tony Soprano use burner cell phones.”
Under the Elections Canada Act, “obstruction” of the electoral process is a criminal offense that can result in a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. Elections Canada is also investigating links between the Conservative Party and an automated call company in Edmonton.
Despite the allegations, the Liberal Party held onto the Guelph riding in the 2011 election. But the party alleges that hundreds of voters in more closely fought constituencies received harassing phone calls from people impersonating Liberal Party officials. The calls came at inconvenient hours, such as dinner time or late at night. Jewish voters got the calls on the Jewish Sabbath. The aim, the Liberals say, was to alienate voters and give the party a bad image.
“The Conservative Party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this,” Harper told the House of Commons on Feb. 29.
The Harper government has tried to deflect criticism by noting that in Guelph the Liberals used anonymous automated calls to attack the Conservative candidate. The Liberals apologized for that tactic Monday, while insisting their actions weren’t as bad as attempts to stop Canadians from voting.
One Conservative official who worked on the Guelph campaign resigned from the party when the allegations were first made last month, although he has denied wrongdoing.
If a vote-suppression scheme was in place, Elections Canada will try to determine whether it was the work of rogue party operatives at the riding level or, more damaging for Harper, whether Conservative national headquarters was involved.
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Either way, most observers believe Harper would have been shielded from knowing about the scheme. There’s general agreement, however, that he set the tone for excess with a hyper-partisan, take-no-prisoners approach to politics.
The latest example is his government’s bill making it easier for police to collect information on people using the internet. When opposition politicians said it violated privacy rights, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews accused them of siding with child pornographers who prowl online. (A Liberal Party aide responded by tweeting court details of Toews’ 2010 divorce, including infidelities and a love child born in 2007. In staid Canada, the personal lives of politicians are usually out of bounds for the media.)
A similar tactic was used when evidence emerged that Canadian soldiers were handing detainees over to torture at the hands of Afghan authorities. The Harper government attacked those who expressed concern as unpatriotic, Taliban sympathizers.
When opposition politicians demanded to see documents pertaining to the detainee transfer, Harper took the extraordinary move of shutting down parliament instead.
The bullying of adversaries, including American-style election attack ads, has occurred alongside a growing number of questionable practices during Harper’s six years in power, five of which were at the head of minority governments.
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The Conservative Party pleaded guilty to exceeding campaign spending limits in 2006. It also diverted $40 million, slated for border improvements, to a minister’s riding for infrastructure projects. (Twenty-two eyebrow-raising are listed here.)
Still, Harper won a majority government last May, with only 39 percent of the vote, thanks to the vagaries of Canada’s British-style “first-past-the-post” electoral system. But if investigations prove that the Conservative Party, at a national campaign level, was involved in preventing Canadians from voting, the damage may be “Nixonian” indeed.
Harper’s government has already seen its popularity drop since its May 2 election victory, partly due to controversial legislation. One particularly prickly measure eliminates the national registry for rifles — a database that police chiefs wanted to preserve in the name of public safety.
A public opinion poll conducted by pollster EKOS while the vote suppression allegations raged found national support for the Conservatives at just 31.4 percent. Fully 52.7 percent of those polled said the government was heading in the wrong direction.
“If this latest controversy does take hold and worsen for the government,” wrote EKOS President Frank Graves, “there is ample evidence that their weakened position from the last election, and poor standing in terms of basic directional indicators, could see them descend into areas where their legitimacy would be in question.”