Sat, Mar 03, 2012 - Page 7 News List

‘Robocall’ probe roils Canadian politics

MISDIRECTION:Opposition parties say their supporters were targeted and have blamed the ruling Conservatives, but they say they are victims of a smear campaign

AFP, Ottawa

A probe into “robocalls” that misdirected Canadian voters to fake polling stations during last year’s election, won by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Tories, is casting suspicion on the results.

It is not yet clear who was behind the automated telephone calls to voters in the town of Guelph, Ontario last spring that reportedly led to a chaotic scene at a polling station, and likely led some to give up on voting.

The opposition parties, whose supporters were apparently targeted, pointed fingers at the Conservatives, but the Conservatives denied any involvement while hitting back at what they claimed was a “smear campaign.”

Elections Canada, after being inundated with complaints, is now investigating the rogue calls, aided by the federal police, as new allegations are raised daily.

At a press conference on Tuesday, outspoken New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Pat Martin described the misleading pre-recorded calls claiming to be from Elections Canada as a “heinous affront to democracy.”

“How is this different from a bunch of goons with clubs blocking the door to a voter station,” he said.

Liberal MPs also expressed suspicions that the “robocalls” may have been part of a coordinated effort to discourage supporters of the Liberal and New Democratic parties from getting to the ballot box.

Elections Canada traced the calls to a single telephone number that showed up on call displays and a disposable “burner” cellphone registered to an unknown “Pierre Poutine” at a fictitious address in Joliette, northeast of Montreal. (Poutine is a Quebec dish of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy.)

According to court documents cited by PostMedia News, the cellphone was used to set up an account to make the phony calls two days before the May 2 election at an Edmonton, Alberta call center.

The call center company, Racknine, worked for the Tories’ national campaign, but said it was unaware that its servers were being used to make “fake calls.”

It said in a statement that it does not monitor outgoing calls made by customers through its automated service, and estimates that 10 million phone calls went out during the campaign.

After three back-to-back minority governments, the Tories on May 2, 2011 won 166 out of 308 seats in parliament, gaining their first majority government since 1988.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats, surged past the Liberals, which had governed the country of 34 million people for most of the last century, and became Canada’s official opposition.

Jenni Byrne, who was the Tories’ national election manager, said the party ran “a clean and ethical campaign.”

“The party was not involved with these calls and if anyone on a local campaign was involved they will not play a role in a future campaign,” she said.

Harper went further, saying in parliament on Wednesday, “The Conservative Party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this.”

“I think we must conclude this is simply a smear campaign without any basis at all,” he said.

Unmoved, the opposition parties continued pressing for answers as the scandal widened to include alleged “dirty tricks” in more than 45 electoral districts across Canada.

“Who the hell uses a burner cellphone and is not trying to hide something?” Pat Martin told reporters. “If you’re trying to tape a recording through an Edmonton company to play in Guelph, Ontario, why the hell do you use a burner cellphone in Montreal? Only dope dealers and Hells Angels and Tony Soprano use burner cellphones.”

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