Opposition parties blasted the Harper government Wednesday for failing to introduce legislation to prevent the kind of electoral fraud that plagued the 2011 election, when thousands of voters complained of receiving harassing or misleading calls that directed them to wrong or non-existent polling stations.
The government's inaction means the same kind of illegal tactics could be used again in the coming byelections in Toronto Centre, the Montreal riding of Bourassa and the Manitoba ridings of Provencher and Brandon-Souris, warned deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale.
"We all need to be alert to the risk of this happening again. I think we have to keep this on the top of people's minds," Goodale said, urging byelection voters to record any suspicious calls and to immediately inform Elections Canada.
Indeed, Goodale suggested the Conservatives, whom he blames for the 2011 "robocall" affair, are deliberately dragging their feet because they intend to use such tactics again.
"All of this makes you wonder what the real motive is in keeping the law against voter suppression and electoral fraud so ineffective that people could easily do it again with little fear of ever getting caught."
With Harper having decided to delay the resumption of Parliament until October, NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott said it's unlikely legislation to crack down on electoral fraud can be implemented in time for the next general election in 2015 — much less in time for the byelections, the first of which must be called by Jan. 6 at the latest.
He noted that chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has previously warned such legislation must be adopted by early 2014 if it's to be implemented in a 2015 election.
"As a result, Canadians will likely go to the polls again with a weaker Elections Act that makes it much harder for the chief electoral officer to track down election dirty tricks," Scott said in a written statement.
Mayrand has proposed amending the law to, among other things, give Elections Canada stronger investigative powers and impose stiffer penalties on anyone found guilty of electoral fraud. He's also called for greater regulation of the databases political parties have amassed on Canadians' voting preferences.
The government had prepared legislation, without consulting Mayrand, that was to have dealt with some of the issues raised by the so-called robocall scandal. The bill was scheduled for introduction last April but was yanked at the last minute, reportedly after receiving a hostile reception from Conservative MPs.
A spokeswoman for Pierre Poilievre, the new minister responsible for democratic reform, said the government is committed to introducing legislation "to ensure that Canadians continue to have faith in the integrity of their electoral system" but gave no indication of when.
"In due time, our government will introduce comprehensive legislative changes to strengthen our electoral system," said Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey.
The Conservative party has adamantly denied involvement in any orchestrated campaign to suppress non-Tory votes in 2011 and has called on any "rogue" operatives to be punished.
So far, only a lone staffer from the Conservatives' campaign in Guelph, Ont., Michael Sona, has been charged in the matter. Sona has denied any wrongdoing and has suggested he's been made a scapegoat by the party.
Elections Canada is continuing to investigate complaints about robocalls in Guelph and more than 200 other ridings.
Earlier this year, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley threw out an attempt to overturn the results in six ridings due to the misleading calls. Nevertheless, he concluded that electoral fraud did occur and that the Conservative party's massive central database was the most likely source of information used to target the calls.
Tories have frequently deflected accusations of Conservative dirty tricks by pointing to examples of alleged abuse on the part of opposition parties. Wednesday was no different.
Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey called on the Liberal party to explain why it prepared "suppression cards" to be distributed by Liberal candidates during the 2008 election.
He was alluding to a reference in Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's 2008 campaign return, which indicated that the party invoiced all Liberal candidates for a package of material, which included "suppression cards — shipped on request" that targeted the NDP and Conservatives.
"I can only assume suppression cards are an attempt by the Liberals to suppress voters during an election campaign," DeLorey said.
Trudeau spokeswoman Kate Monfette said Trudeau ran a positive campaign and did not request the cards, which are actually little more than standard-issue negative campaign materials.
Liberal party spokeswoman Andree-Lyne Halle said two cards were available for candidates who wanted them — one warning voters about the risk of voting NDP, the other bashing the Conservative record.
"The Conservatives are stretching if they are attempting to compare this to what a federal judge termed possible electoral fraud using the Conservative party database," Halle said.
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