A company working for the Conservative Party has been censured by its industry body over calls made to voters in Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Montreal riding.
But the censure decision also provides a way for its members to use similar tactics, as long as they're done through a separate entity rather than a division of the company.
Campaign Research, through "acts, omissions and public statements," violated public confidence and its professional responsibilities, a complaints panel of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) concluded.
The panel also said "the firm has likely diminished public confidence in the marketing research industry," and hinted that the calls had little connection to polling.
"It may be argued that the project in question was not marketing research. However, the project definitely created strong negative opinions," the decision says.
Cotler complained a year ago in the House of Commons that calls to voters in his Mount Royal riding suggested he was stepping down from his seat and that those calls interfered with his ability to do his job as an MP.
MRIA received seven complaints about the phone calls, which the Conservatives said were meant to identify potential voters.
Conservative MPs didn't deny being behind the calls, arguing that they are protected as free speech, and that they were just trying to identify potential voters.
No apology for Cotler
House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled last December that he had no power to deal with the Conservative phone calls, though he called them "reprehensible."
Scheer said he was sympathetic to Cotler and that there's no doubt Cotler has been bombarded by calls and emails from confused constituents, but he had difficulty concluding Cotler wasn't able to carry out his parliamentary duties.
Cotler had argued the calls were a breach of his privilege as an MP.
Cotler said he wants the Conservative Party to sever its ties to Campaign Research and promise not to "engage in such false and misleading voter suppression again."
"Here we have an independent panel finding that they violated public confidence, that they violated their own codes of conduct and professional responsibility," he said to reporters after the Liberal Party's weekly caucus meeting.
"When the Speaker characterized the acts as reprehensible at the time, we still did not get an apology from the Conservative Party. In fact, I've never gotten an apology from them for the kind of permanent, false and misleading campaigns that they've been running in my riding for over 2½ years."
'Gold seal' comment part of review
A major part of the decision hangs on an interview by Campaign Research principal Nick Kouvalis with CTV News Channel.
In the interview, Kouvalis referred to the association and used it to justify the work of Campaign Research, the panel writes in the decision.
"If we were push pollsters, we wouldn't have a gold seal at the MRIA," the report quoted Kouvalis as saying.
The complaints panel focused on that statement and other similar ones, noting that the association's members are supposed to ask journalists not to refer to the organization so that their own views aren't confused with those of the association.
"[Kouvalis] used Campaign Research's gold seal certification and its MRIA membership to attempt to convince the Canadian public that Campaign Research did nothing wrong in carrying out the voter identification project in Mount Royal," the report said.
The calls in Mount Royal were made by Campaign Support, a division of Campaign Research that has since been made independent, the report says.
'Not legitimate' public opinion research
MRIA wouldn't have had any reason to get involved in the public complaints if Campaign Support had been a completely separate business entity, the contract with the Conservative Party had been directly with Campaign Support, and if Kouvalis had not mentioned MRIA or the company's gold seal certification, the report says.
Now that Campaign Support has been made independent of Campaign Research, "this was an important step and one to be commended, particularly since Campaign Research undertook the step on its own initiative," the panel wrote.
Campaign Support could never be a member of the association, MRIA spokesman Brendan Wycks said, because its work isn't legitimate marketing, survey and public opinion research. Legitimate research doesn't identify individual respondents, but the nature of voter identification means the company's client gets information on specific people.
"A voter identification project is not legitimate marketing and survey research, so it could not be carried out by a member agency of MRIA," Wycks said.
Wycks said he thinks the censure will be effective because it's a public shaming accompanied by widespread media coverage.
The association is a voluntary organization, but has a complaint resolution process for issues with its member firms.
The decision also includes the script for the calls, provided by Campaign Research. Callers were to say that they were calling on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada and ask whether Stephen Harper could count on the constituent's support "in the upcoming election."
"If asked what election this is for, say the following: 'Some people are suggesting that the current MP MAY retire, so we're calling on behalf of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada to ask you if you would consider supporting the Conservative Party of Canada if there is a byelection,'" the script reads.
Cotler was re-elected on May 2, 2011, six months before the calls started.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Harper should take responsibility for the calls, which were paid for by his party.
"The effort to dislodge Mr. Cotler was, to use a technical term, disgusting," Rae said.
To imply Cotler was stepping down was beyond any standard in politics he's ever known, Rae said, since the people running the company and the Conservatives knew that "it was a lie and knew it was false and knew it was untrue."
"The response that you've got to remember is the response of Mr. [government House leader Peter] Van Loan. Who said, 'It's just politics. It's how we do business.' That tells you something about the Conservative Party."
In the House, Van Loan said he considered the issue settled, given Scheer's ruling last year, and said Rae is experienced enough to know that the issue wasn't House business.
"I'm experienced enough to know when a minister is refusing to answer a question," Rae shot back.
The Conservatives have long targeted the seat that Cotler has held since 1999.