09/25/2011 02:00 EDT | Updated 11/25/2011 05:12 EST

Allegations Of P.E.I. Immigration Program Bribery Shake Election Campaign

Flickr/Martin Cathrae
CHARLOTTETOWN - Accusations of dirty politics and bribery surrounding a failed Prince Edward Island immigration program shook the province's election campaign at the midway point, but some say it won't change their votes on Oct. 3.

P.E.I. voters interviewed before the only televised leaders' debate of the campaign say they are more preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs, help for the province's fishermen or the cleanup of Charlottetown's harbour.

Prudence Green of Kingston said the immigration program won't affect how she votes.

"It's getting kind of dirty," she said. "It's not nice."

Barry MacTavish of Eldon said controversy surrounding the immigration program isn't new.

"I'd made my mind up before that anyway because that's been ongoing now for a while," he said. "They'll get to the bottom of it sooner or later, I guess. There's not much we can do about it."

The program surfaced as an election issue after the federal Immigration Department forwarded accusations of bribery that were levelled by three former employees of the province to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency. The Mounties are considering whether to proceed with an investigation after one worker alleged she saw senior provincial officials accept cash that she believes was intended to fast-track immigration applications from China.

Premier Robert Ghiz has denounced the accusations as unfounded and dismissed the timing of them as dirty politics.

The renewed controversy surrounding the program, which has already been investigated once by the RCMP and was the subject of an auditor general's report, has given Conservative Leader Olive Crane a weapon to battle the Liberals with.

Prof. Ian Dowbiggin of the University of Prince Edward Island says the new allegations provided the highlight of Thursday's debate on an issue Ghiz's Liberal government failed to adequately deal with when it first came up in 2008.

"They didn't put the story to bed," said Dowbiggin, who teaches history. "They had the auditor general do a report and the auditor general's findings were very critical, but the provincial government really just went on from there thinking the whole issue had been closed, but it keeps coming back."

If people see debate around the immigration program as dirty politics, Dowbiggin said it could cause some voters who aren't solidly aligned with a party to stay at home on election day, which would help the Liberals in their bid for a second straight majority government.

"That may in fact encourage some swing voters simply to say, 'A pox on both their houses, I'm not voting in this election,' so that would serve the interests of the Liberals."

The immigration nominee program was a federal-provincial initiative in which the province nominated people for immigration to Canada in exchange for an investment of $200,000 in a local business.Immigrants were to pay a $25,000 deposit that would be returned after living in the province for one year.

Crane has kept the issue alive in the legislature for the past two years, but she took her most direct shot at the premier during the debate.

"You're a disgrace on the (immigration nominee) program and my government will restore integrity once again," Crane said.

Crane also alleged that members of Ghiz's family benefited from the program, causing Ghiz to angrily reply: "Why individuals choose to slander my family is beyond me and I think it's very dirty politics."

Two of the women who made the bribery allegations about the program have also complained to the province's privacy commissioner after emails they sent to a cabinet minister were released by the Liberals during the campaign.

Ghiz said he doesn't know who released the emails and he will leave it to the privacy commissioner to investigate how they ended up in the hands of his party.

Dowbiggin said while the Conservatives may have gained some support as a result of the controversy surrounding the immigration program, he doesn't think it's enough to change the course of the election.

"I don't think it's going to catapult the Conservatives into government come election night, but it might affect a handful of close ridings and in that case it will prove to be a significant factor in a campaign that looked right from the beginning as if it could be a Liberal sweep," he said.