02/07/2013 05:52 EST | Updated 04/09/2013 05:12 EDT

No wrongdoing in Saskatchewan robocalls, PM says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted for a second day that his party did nothing wrong by commissioning a series of robocalls aimed at Saskatchewan residents about proposed changes to electoral boundaries in federal ridings in the province.

In question period Thursday,Harper said, "There was no violation of CRTC rules in this case, unlike the Liberal Party did in a different case. The fact of the matter, Mr. Speaker, is that the party has said there was a mistake here and we have clarified that."

Harper did not say what the "mistake' was, but the Conservative Party issued a statement two days ago saying, "the calls should have been identified as coming from the Conservative Party."

The robocalls, directed at Saskatchewan residents, stated that the proposed boundary changes for federal ridings in the province were contrary to "Saskatchewan values," and invited the call-recipients to press 1 on their keypads if they agreed.

In August, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote was fined $4,900 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for robocalls directed at voters in the 2011 election campaign that were not identified as coming from the Liberal Party.

The prime minister may have been insisting that no CRTC rules were broken in the Saskatchewan robocall case because the recorded voice on the calls said the message was from Chase Research, a company NDP MP Megan Leslie referred to as a "shell company."

The CRTC rules on unsolicited communications state the call must identify the person on whose behalf the communication is being made.

Saskatchewan Liberal Ralph Goodale and some residents of the province have filed complaints to the CRTC about the robocalls.

'Not happy' with robocalls

Opposition MPs pointed out that Harper's views seemed to be at odds with those of his deputy House leader, Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski, who told CBC Radio Wednesday that he was not happy with the robocalls, and knew nothing about them before this week.

"Individuals, had the party identified themselves as calling on behalf on the Conservative Party of Canada, those people receiving the calls, those people could have judged the validity and the merit of the calls themselves," Lukiwski told host Garth Materie.

There was also some discrepancy Thursday between Harper and one of his ministers about how many people in Saskatchewan are opposed to the proposed riding boundary changes, which would create five urban-only districts in Regina and Saskatoon.

Saskatchewan is the only province that is still composed of rural-urban mixes in its ridings, a situation that may favour the Conservatives who hold 13 of the 14 seats, even though the NDP won a third of the popular vote in the last federal election.

Harper said that "hundreds and hundreds" of people opposed the changes. He might have been referring to the Saskatchewan Boundaries Commission that received 230 written submissions about the changes, most of which were negative, as well as 3,000 emails, postcards and petitions. But the commission in its majority report noted, "Clearly, a large number of contacts were inspired by the encouragement of members of Parliament opposed to the abolition of rural-urban hybrid districts."

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is from Saskatchewan, said Thursday, "Three-quarters of the people of Saskatchewan are upset with the way the maps are drawn."

That would amount to more than 700,000 people.

Ritz may have been referring to the dissenting report of one of the appointees to the boundaries commission who wrote, "Close to 75 per cent of the letters and public submissions the commission received were opposed to the proposed boundary changes."

MPs can file objections to the proposed changes once the boundaries commission's report comes before a parliamentary committee in the spring. The commission will consider those objections before it makes its final, independent decision about how Saskatchewan's federal ridings are rejigged.