‘As all good scandals go’

Robocall investigation deepens as public, politicos call on Harper to order inquiry

Former Liberal MP Anita Neville says the robocall scandal hit her constituency of Winnipeg South Centre, which she lost to Joyce Bateman in last May’s election. Supplied

Canada’s robocall controversy continues to twist and turn with Elections Canada now reportedly reviewing more than 31,000 reports of bogus calls made to voters prior to the 2011 election.

Meanwhile, protesters launched the first of a series of protests across the country in Vancouver March 3, with citizens, along with countless politicos, demanding Prime Minister Stephen Harper launch a full inquiry.

“I just came back from Egypt (from) observing the election, and there we see this whole battle for democracy. Then I come back to this heavy-handed (issue) and a government not willing to call an inquiry,” said Anita Neville, a Liberal whose Winnipeg South Centre is alleged to have been targeted.

“My question is: what are you hiding?”

Elections Canada and the RCMP are investigating allegations Liberal and NDP voters across the country received automated phone calls redirecting them to polling stations that did not exist, raising major concerns of electoral fraud and voter suppression.

The calls have been linked to an Alberta-based phone company connected with Conservative party campaign work. The company, RackNine Inc., has admitted its automated service was used by somebody using a throwaway cellphone, but there is no evidence the company was further involved.

In Winnipeg, calls are alleged to have also occurred in Elmwood-Transcona, St. Boniface and Winnipeg Centre.

Neville had held Winnipeg South Centre for 11 years, making it the longest Liberal-held riding in Western Canada. In the May 2011 election, Conservative candidate Joyce Bateman ousted Neville by little more than 700 votes.

Neville said in the first few weeks of her campaign, she was told by voters they had been receiving rude phone calls from her office. However, the campaign hadn’t even begun hitting the phone lines at the time, Neville said.

“It was putting off a lot of our supporters and we knew that,” Neville said, noting in hindsight, her campaign should have done a better job following up on the complaints.

“We were busy running an election. It’s hard to prove. I’m not prepared to say that was the cause of the loss. But it certainly aggravated a lot of people and may have pushed our traditional voters to the NDP.”

A protest march is being planned in Winnipeg for March 11 that will start in Osborne Village and continue to Bateman’s constituency office at 611 Corydon Ave.

Bateman’s offices - in Winnipeg and in Ottawa - did not respond to interview requests by The Uniter.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been steadfast in denying his party’s involvement. Other Conservatives have denounced the matter entirely, even accusing the Liberals of being their own saboteurs.

“This is the most malicious and vicious attack on my party and myself. It’s not true and it’s despicable,” Conservative MP Shelly Glover told The Uniter in an interview last week.

“The Conservative government has provided all documents to Elections Canada. We want to ensure that this smear campaign is shown as a smear campaign. It is deplorable.”

Glover, who was first elected in 2008, again beat out challenging Liberal Ray Simard by almost 8,500 votes.

University of Winnipeg politics professor Shannon Sampert said at the very least a formal inquiry must be made, similar to the Gomery inquiry, which investigated the Liberal AdScam scandal.

“It will be difficult to get to the bottom of this,” Sampert said in a phone interview from Quebec. “I don’t think people are being forthcoming in their roles - as all good scandals go.”

The Liberals and NDP, with only interim leaders in place, sit like “lame ducks” in the matter, she added.

“They’re not exactly at they’re strongest points,” she said.

“Both of them are missing a golden opportunity to begin setting themselves up as different in terms of accountability. It’ll be interesting to see if they can recoup that when leaders are put into place.”

If information about the investigation is released in a timely manner before the next election, it could have an effect, she said.

“Will this turn more people on to politics? Unfortunately not,” Sampert said. “There are a lot of people saying it had impact on the ridings. I don’t care if it had an impact or not. It’s a subversion of democracy. That should be getting people incensed.”

With files from Carson Hammond

Published in Volume 66, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 7, 2012)

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