Good investigative journalism could break this affair wide open, but will the owners of the Harper-friendly corporate media allow their journalists to go beyond normal reporting and do the hard work necessary to get to the very bottom of this dark story?
And, if a “smoking gun” can be traced to the Conservative camp, will the normally reluctant, resource-strapped Elections Canada show the guts and take strong action against the dangerously vindictive Stephen Harper and his gang and push for someone to be jailed?
The media very well could provide a great public service if it were to finally pin something extremely significant on the slippery Harper government. Criminal convictions in what amounts to vote fixing – reminding me of the days when political parties in Nova Scotia provided a $2 bottle of rum for a vote – could help shut down Harper’s destructive agenda, as well as ruin his attempt for another victory in 2015.
A few years ago The Globe and Mail would have led the way investigating this story. But since The Globe went upscale in 2009 to cater to a wealthier demographic under new owner David Thomson and Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse, investigative journalism has pretty well disappeared at the paper.
Amazingly, The Globe believes what Stephen Harper says. The paper’s March 1 2012 headline blared: “Tories played no tricks: Harper.” Perhaps the paper got a late night call from a Deep Throat insider assuring them that everything is okay.
Ibbitson and Hébert well off the mark
Meanwhile, the country’s likely two most influential political columnists, John Ibbitson of The Globe and Chantal Hébert of The Toronto Star, whose column is also syndicated, downplayed the amount of evidence against Harper. Ibbitson even went on the CBC`s The Current and foolishly told Anna Maria Tremonti that the hierarchy of the Conservative Party would never be involved in anything like the robo-calling scandal.
It is difficult to understand why Ibbitson and Hébert say they could not imagine Harper’s top people being involved in directing the robo-calling campaign. Near the close of the 2006 election campaign, three key Harper aides – the same type of folks Ibbitson is talking about – ran a scheme to conceal the fact that they had exceeded their advertising spending allowance in a number of key ridings by $1.4-million in a complicated, deceptive scheme.
That time Harper’s Team was caught and their offices raided by police. The party ultimately pled guilty to reduced charges of violating financing provisions of the Elections Act. The long-drawn out affair clearly showed that it was Harper’s staff that had broken the law.
If any media organization comes up with the “smoking gun” to tie this story to the PMO, it might be the strong investigative team at The Toronto Star or journalists from Postmedia and The Ottawa Citizen. Stephen Maher of Postmedia and Glen McGregor of The Citizen broke the original story on February 22.
It should not be too hard to get to the bottom of this affair. As many as 50 people – perhaps even 100 – have some idea of what took place. This includes owners and managers of three robo-calling/polling companies. There are the people who prepared the detailed information concerning who should be called, the many people who operated the systems, folks working in banks, and Conservative workers and volunteers in many ridings. Then there are telephone records, billing and receipt transactions, and bank trails that media may not get hold of, but that can be accessed by the RCMP and Elections Canada.
Story could slide to inside pages
If the media does not break open this story during the next couple of weeks, the scandal could easily move to the inside pages. It would then be out of the public eye. Folks as far away as St. Anthony, Nfld. would be able to hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the Prime Minister’s Office and corporate board rooms across the country.
Whatever happens, Elections Canada will likely be working on the robo-calling case for months or even years. But does the agency have the courage to try to put someone behind bars if they are found guilty of election tampering? Based on the organization’s record - probably not.
Elections Canada has been soft on individuals and groups found guilty of violating voting laws. First, there was the disgraceful way it accepted the Conservative Party’s admission of guilt in the 2006 ‘in-and-out scandal’ in return for not pursuing criminal charges against the high-level operatives in Harper’s office.
In other cases, the NDP avoided prosecution by admitting that it had violated two sections of the Elections Act.; Liberal leadership candidates were permitted to continue to carry debt from their 2006 battle to replace Paul Martin; and the CBC was let off the hook after it broke the law that prohibits the broadcast of election results before polls close across the country.
Public interest organization Democracy Watch said that Elections Canada has a “dangerously weak enforcement record.” Out of thousands of cases, only 10 Canadians have been convicted of electoral crimes since 2004. No one has gone to jail.
Moreover, Elections Canada is highly secretive. “…. no one can tell whether Elections Canada is enforcing the federal election law fairly and properly because it has kept secret its investigations and rulings on more than 2,280 complaints since 2004,'' said Democracy Watch spokesman Tyler Sommers.
Elections Canada’s Strategic Plan indicates that it may not have enough people to adequately investigate the huge robo-calling case. While the agency has a permanent employee base of 330 people, “it currently relies on casual, temporary and contract personnel and core staff overtime to prepare for and conduct electoral events, especially so when workload peaks. . . .”
The agency employs a number of retired RCMP officers. Given the track record of the RCMP in some parts of the country, this is a bit of concern.
Elections Canada said the pressures it is under “limit our organizational capacity to take on additional work resulting from electoral events or further electoral reforms. This is an area that will require close attention.”
Council of Canadians becoming involved
Thankfully, in light of the mistrust of the media and Elections Canada, the hard-nosed public interest group the Council of Canadians (CoC) has come forward to try to make sure that justice will prevail.
The CoC has announced it is collecting anecdotal information on election abuse during the campaign. It will work with citizens to launch court challenges in ridings where the number of offensive calls exceeded the vote total by which the Conservatives defeated an opponent.
CoC Executive Director Garry Neil said the council will distribute a questionnaire to "a significant number of Canadians in each of the affected ridings," focusing on 20 ridings where poll margins were close, such as Guelph, Thunder Bay and Windsor, Ont. The questionnaire can be found on the CoC’s website.
Stay tuned! This is very important for those of us who want to see the destructive Stephen Harper brought down to size and responsible democracy restored.
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