We didn’t do it. We would never do something like that. We didn’t mean to do it. It was a mistake. A lone staffer is to blame. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with what we did. Everybody else does it.
In the course of a week, the Conservative Party of Canada has made each of these dubious statements in turn, in response to a single issue. This litany of implausible denial comes in the wake of news that once again somebody connected with the Conservatives has been using automated phone calls to play tricks on Canadian voters.
It all began with a review of Saskatchewan’s federal ridings. Every 10 years, electoral boundaries commissions conduct a province-by-province review of Canada’s riding boundaries, and the 2012 commission in Saskatchewan has recommended major changes in Regina and Saskatoon.
As things stand, urban areas of the province are quartered up and distributed to vast rural ridings, diluting the anti-Conservative vote just enough to paint the province almost entirely blue. This arrangement is so effective that in the last election, with 32.3 per cent of the popular vote, the NDP failed to win a single seat.
The Harper government has shown a commitment to updating electoral boundaries in other parts of the country, promising to create 30 new ridings in Ontario, B.C., Alberta, and Quebec. If voting patterns were to go unchanged from the last election, the Conservatives would win at least 25 of those 30 new seats. Now that’s reform the government can get behind. But tinker with Saskatchewan? No thank you.
Last week the public learned that somebody was using a robocall push poll to try to convince voters in Saskatchewan that the non-partisan electoral boundaries commission has a nefarious agenda. A push poll is a political dirty trick in which voters who believe they’re participating in a public opinion poll are fed biased or false information by the “pollster.” Last year the Conservatives admitted to using the tactic to spread a false rumour that Liberal Irwin Cottler was planning to resign his seat.
The new “poll” suggested that the new electoral boundaries were an attack on “Saskatchewan values” designed to set urban and rural areas against each other. Given the modus operandi, and the fact that Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to Stephen Harper, had used similar language in an interview with the Hill Times, some observers considered it possible that the Conservatives might just be behind the calls.
Not so, asserted Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey. In an email to Postmedia News last Friday, DeLorey said, “We are not polling,” and denied all knowledge of the calls. Lukiwski backed up Delorey’s denial, saying, “Certainly polling is not something I’m doing and I’m pretty sure I’d know if any of my colleagues was doing something like that and I haven’t heard a thing. That’s just something I wouldn’t have done anyway.”
Then on Monday came the news that a forensic voice-analyst had identified the caller as Matt Meier, owner of Edmonton-based RackNine Inc., the company that engineered the 7,000 robocalls designed to direct non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling stations during the 2011 federal election in Guelph. On Tuesday, faced with this new evidence, DeLorey changed his statement. It turned out his party did authorize the calls. Their earlier denial was the result of “an internal miscommunication.”
Canada’s election law requires that political parties who contact voters identify themselves. Not only was this latest round of robocalls not identified as originating with the Conservatives, anyone who tried to return the calls was led to the voice mail of Chase Research, a company that appears to be fictitious.
Now that it has become impossible to deny responsibility for the calls, the Conservatives have switched to denying there was anything wrong with them. Harper told the House of Commons, “The party followed the rules and our position to the public is very clear on the commission.” He went on to say that the Conservative push poll only reflected public opinion, and that “75 per cent of respondents” opposed the new boundaries.
But commission chair Justice Ron Mills denies this. “I have no idea what the 75 per cent number is,” said Mills, “that’s not a number the commission generated,” and pre-proposal submissions were “overwhelmingly in favour of urban only.”
When one party takes a little over half the vote and ends up with all but one seat, it’s clear that the electoral boundaries are unfair. For the party that benefits from the status quo to resist reform is nothing less than gerrymandering, the anti-democratic tactic of manufacturing (or in this case preserving) ridings that favour the ruling party. Caught in the act, the Conservatives misled the public as to their role in the affair, and then when caught red-handed they tried to shift the blame, all the while asserting that there is no blame to shift.
It’s not that they expect Canadians to believe them. They know most of us aren’t that gullible. They also know they can count on their core support, that hard 35 per cent of the people who will always vote Tory, no matter how deeply mired in scandal their party gets. Now all the Conservatives need to do is get the ridings properly configured so that 35 per cent is enough to guarantee them majorities for years to come.
Isn’t that what power’s for?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.