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This past Tuesday Ottawa journalists received a strange, almost out-of-context e-mail from Fred DeLorey, Director of Communications for the Conservative Party of Canada.
With no background narrative, DeLorey launched straight in with his message:
"In regards to the calls last week that went into Saskatchewan concerning redistribution, the calls came from the Conservative Party."
He then added a carefully worded explanation, which was, almost deliberately, vague:
"There was an internal miscommunication on the matter, and the calls should have been identified as coming from the Conservative Party."
This all came after previous denials from DeLorey that the Conservatives had anything to do with automated calls in Saskatchewan supposedly "polling" people about their views on electoral redistribution.
The calls identified themselves only as coming from a mysterious company called "Chase Research."
However, the Ottawa Citizen's Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor did some sleuthing, with the help of a U.S. voice recognition expert, and discovered that the Saskatchewan caller's voice bore a remarkable similarity to that of Matt Meier of the RackNine company, which infamously did a fair bit of controversial robocalling for the Conservatives during the last election campaign.
That little bit of intelligence prompted the Conservatives to change their story.
Conservatives not all on same page
CRTC rules state that it is illegal to do political robocalls without identifying their source, and Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has formally complained to the CRTC about this case.
However that turns out, for now the Conservatives can't seem to get their story straight.
The Prime Minister told the House that his Party was simply taking part in a normal process, and had broken no rules.
However, Saskatchewan Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, the Government House Leader's Parliamentary Secretary, does not seem to be on the same page as his leader.
Lukiwski told one Saskatchewan radio station he believed the calls were "deceptive," because they didn't say they were from the Conservative Party. In another interview, the Saskatchewan MP said the Conservative Party's national political director, Jenni Byrne, should be held to account for the rogue robocalls.
The Prime Minister may have some private advice for Lukiskwi on all that.
Putting partisanship into electoral map-making
The bigger question is, given that there is no election campaign now, why are the Conservatives so busy trying to manipulate public opinion?
The current Saskatchewan effort is actually all about what is normally the fairly routine process of redistributing federal electoral districts.
In the United States, the entire electoral process, including drawing the boundaries for electoral districts, is highly politicized.
U.S. Congressional districts have been notoriously gerrymandered in order to maximize partisan advantage -- by state governments, which have the authority for drawing the boundaries.
In Canada, we have been spared most of that political chicanery.
Here, after each national census there is a non-partisan process for re-drawing the federal electoral map.
There are independent "Electoral Boundaries Commissions" for each province, each of which has three members. The chair of each Commission is always a judge appointed by the chief justice of the province. The Speaker of the House of Commons names the other two members, for each province.
Elections Canada determines the number of seats per province and provides technical assistance; but the Commissions -- after hearing from the public and from politicians -- make the final decisions.
It is not a perfect system.
Historically the Commissions have tended to over-represent rural voters vis-à-vis their urban neighbours. The argument has been that to carve out rural ridings that had as many people as urban ones would make for some geographically unwieldy districts encompassing thousands of square kilometers of territory.
The good thing about the Commission process has been that, unlike the openly partisan American system, it did not seek to draw the maps to favour one party or the other.
In the case of Saskatchewan, when the Commission re-drew the map in the early 1990s it created many blended urban and rural ridings and no exclusively urban ones.
That quirk turned out to be a boon for the Conservatives, who, last election, won 13 out of 14 seats in Saskatchewan -- well over 90 per cent of the seats, with only somewhat more than 55 per cent of the vote.
The NDP got nearly a third of the votes n the last election but not a single seat. Goodale won his seat for the Liberals -- despite the Liberal's miserable province-wide showing of less than 9 per cent.
This time, the non-partisan Saskatchewan Commission redrew the map to create five urban ridings in Saskatoon and Regina, and that is what the Conservatives do not like.
That is why the Conservatives ordered an essentially phony robocall "poll" in Saskatchewan. The purpose was to drum up opposition to the Commission’s new electoral map, and, through blatant political pressure, force a change.
The Conservatives' chief communicator, DeLorey, was quite open about the Party's goal in his Tuesday news release. After claiming, disingenuously, that "we are not polling on this issue" (although "we are doing a host of things to communicate with voters and get their feedback") Delorey said:
"Rural Saskatchewan plays a vital role in supporting the urban population centres and it only makes sense to have MPs that represent both rural and urban areas ..."
'Fraudulent calls meant to misinform' or 'operating within the process'?
In the House, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair saw it all a bit differently.
"The independence of the Canadian Electoral Boundaries Commission is fundamental to our democracy," the Leader of the Official Opposition said, "Conservatives paid for fraudulent robocalls using a fake company name to misinform voters and manipulate an important part of our democratic system. Worse yet, Conservative Party officials lied to Canadians to try to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Who will the Prime Minister hold accountable for this fraud?"
The Prime Minister utterly ignored the issue of the calls not being properly identified, and blandly explained:
"Those commissions accept and expect input from parliamentarians, from political parties and from the general public. In Saskatchewan there has been overwhelming opposition to the particular proposals, but we are simply operating within the process as it exists..."
We are are still awaiting a decision on the Federal Court case that seeks to have election results in six ridings overturned because of deceptive robot-calls.
Apparently the Conservatives believed the stakes were high enough in the current Saskatchewan redistribution that they thought it worth the risk to resort to robocalls once more. In a tight election a handful of seats in Saskatchewan could make a big difference.
If any good has come out of the current kerfuffle it may be that the Conservatives might now feel obliged to back down, a bit, and allow the non-partisan Commission's decisions to stand.