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Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

Don't Let the Roar of F-35s Drown Out the Robocall Scandal

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In light of the unprecedented incompetence exposed by the Auditor General on the F-35 procurement scandal, the swirl of parliamentary and media attention surrounding the other simmering scandal of fraudulent robocols has died down somewhat.

But the issue will not go away because a fraud occurred and Canadians must find out what happened. A few weeks ago, the Chief Electoral Officer told a Commons committee that impersonating officials responsible for the integrity of the voting system is an affront to our democracy. Indeed it is. Those that perpetrated this crime must be found.

Despite the lame attempts of Conservative MP's to shrug off, minimize, or even make the incredulous suggestion that this must be all Elections Canada fault, all signs point to them. The technological tools they use and the black-op tactics they employ are widely established. These underlying behaviors and kill at all costs culture is also perfectly in keeping with how the Harper Conservatives operate.

As more complaints emerge we see the clear outlines of a deliberate, systematic and calculated strategy. No one believes that such an effort could have been planned and executed by one rogue operative, "Pierre Poutine," operating alone and without the knowledge of his superiors.

That is utterly implausible.

The Harper Conservative Party simply does not operate that way, and never has. Do they ensure that they organize themselves with the protective layer of plausible deniability? Of course they do. That's why it will take some time and shrewd investigative work to smoke them out.
Thus far we have only seen a small glimpse of Conservative black-op techniques. The calls to Irwin Cotler's riding which erroneously claimed that he was retiring was one recent example. A call center hired by the Conservative Party did that. In defending themselves, the Government House Leader, Peter Van Loan, called this reprehensible act "free speech".

Other, just as odious, tactics used by the Harper Conservatives are designed to sow confusion in the voter's minds and discourage them from voting. These bear serious investigative and public scrutiny.

One such technique is called the "push poll." My British Columbian constituency was a target such "polls," both before and during the election campaign, but they were conducted across the country. A so-called "push poll" is an insidious form of negative campaigning, disguised as a political poll. "Push polls" are not surveys at all, but rather unethical political telemarketing -- telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. It will not include any demographic questions. The "push" poll will contain negative information -- sometimes truthful, sometimes not -- about the opponent.

Here's how they work: You get a phone call from someone identifying themselves as being from a "market research" company (not the Conservative party). They emphasize that this is an "independent research firm." Calls are typically very short and only a few "questions" are asked. They start by sounding fair and reasonable: "If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?" That is part of confirming voter identification. Toward the end of the call, the real purpose becomes clear.

For instance, they could ask leading questions such as: "Would you re-elect an MP that misrepresents himself by saying he's an international human rights and constitutional lawyer, but really has no track record at either? Do you agree or disagree?" Or "Would you be embarrassed that your MP wastes your tax dollars by consistently ranking at the very top spenders for first-class travel and office expenses? Agree or disagree?"

They also sometimes involve more lengthy preambles to firmly plant a negative image in the mind of the voter. For example: "The Vancouver Sun reported that your MP ranks number one in the Conservative caucus for taking all-expense paid luxury international trips sponsored by foreign governments and organizations. In justifying accepting these unethical first-class gratuities, your MP said: 'When I take trips paid for by others, I do what my constituents elected me to do.' Do you agree that your MP was elected to accept free trips from foreign governments?"

The answer, of course, is obvious. Questions are geared to gin up specific responses. These techniques employ loaded questions under the guise of doing an objective survey.
The first use of this tool in the political black-operative's arsenal technique was by Lee Atwater in the 1980's. It was later refined by his protégé, Karl Rove, and adopted by the Stephen Harper Conservatives.

Professor Russell D. Renka, of Southeast Missouri State University, explored such practices in his 2010 paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Public Opinion Polls."

"All such ugly polls commit gross violations of ethical standards of behavior," according to Renka. "They masquerade as legitimate objective surveys, but then launch into statements designed to prejudice respondents against a specific candidate or policy."

While this technique is not illegal, it quite obviously crosses an ethical line. It is one of many tools that the Conservative party employs to suppress and confuse voters.

There is no doubt that the techniques employed by the Harper Conservative party are effective at their core objective of suppressing the opposition vote and getting out theirs. Like the barrage of negative advertising three years before a general election, these tactics raise very important questions about the corrosive impact they have on our democracy. And as such, they deserve rigorous scrutiny from serious journalists and parliamentarians.

*NOTE: A previous version of this blog suggested that the company RMG was involved in push polls. On further checking I am satisfied that RMG was not involved in this polling though others were. I regret any incorrect information to that effect being published.