Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election tactics in Saanich-Gulf Islands should get close look

Some odd — even worrying — things happened in the Saanich-Gulf Island’s riding successfully held by Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn.
One election dirty trick involved phone fraud and seemed both unethical and illegal. The RCMP response, which suggested election fraud allegations just aren’t a priority, was disturbing.
And while there is no evidence of wrongdoing, it appears third-party advertisers played a disproportionate role in the riding.
If nothing else, the events raise questions about the effectiveness of current laws and enforcement efforts.
First, some background. Lunn, natural resources minister in the last government, faced a tough fight for re-election. He won with 37 per cent of the vote in 2006, in part thanks to a three-way opposition vote split.
The Liberals nominated Briony Penn, a high-profile, respected environmentalist. She hoped to appeal to Green voters. Mid-campaign, NDP candidate Julian West withdrew from the race after a creepy past incident of public nudity resurfaced. (That’s fuelled some conspiracy talk on the political blogs, with no apparent foundation.)
West withdrew too late to have his name taken off the ballot, but Penn’s prospects were still helped by the departure. The NDP riding association wrote to all party members saying West was not a candidate and the party wasn’t endorsing anyone.
But in the days before the election, residents were flooded with taped phone messages urging them to vote for West. People who had caller ID saw the call was coming from the phone of NDP riding association president Bill Graham.
Except that was not true. Whoever made the calls used “spoofing” software to make it appear as if the calls were coming from Graham’s number.
The scam didn’t likely affect the outcome. Lunn had 2,625 more votes than Penn. West received 3,667 votes, but they certainly can’t all be attributed to the calls. Some people always vote NDP; others might have chosen to cast their ballots to ensure the party gets the $1.95 per vote in annual public financing.
But the scam certainly could have changed the outcome under slightly different circumstances.
Elections Canada refuses to confirm or deny investigations. Telus says it can’t do anything. The RCMP maintains no laws were broken.
But lawyers disagree. It’s a Criminal Code offence to knowingly provide false information over the phone or to fraudulently impersonate another.
That’s not the only odd development in the riding.
Third-party advertisers are allowed to participate in Canadian election campaigns, subject to spending limits. The aim is to allow interested groups or individuals to join the debate, while setting limits to make sure the rich can’t buy elections. People who favour or oppose a carbon tax, for example, can make sure the issue is front and centre or support sympathetic candidates.
Andrew MacLeod, of the consistently interesting, took a close look at third-party spending in Saanich-Gulf Islands.
In the 308 ridings across Canada, 59 third-party groups registered with Elections Canada. Five registered in Saanich-Gulf Islands using the same address — a law firm that includes Bruce Hallsor, a Lunn supporter.
Hallsor says the groups recognized his expertise in electoral law. But he is vice-president of the Conservative riding association and co-chaired the Conservative B.C. campaign in 2006. (Hallsor is also a strong proponent of electoral reform and a champion of Scouting — literally, a Boy Scout in the often scrappy world of politics.)
Four of the five, MacLeod found, also had the same financial agent: The Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the Dean Park Advocacy Association, the Economic Advisory Council of Saanich and the Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council.
Each third-party participant is limited to spending $3,666 in any riding. Candidates, this time, were limited to $92,000. And it’s illegal for third-party participants to split into multiple subsets to avoid spending limits.
The spending filings for Saanich-Gulf Islands will be watched closely. If Lunn spent to the limit, and several third-party groups with a common address spent heavily to support him, expect some tough questions.
Footnote: The Lunn campaign had its own complaints. He was a high-profile target as a potentially vulnerable B.C. Conservative. The Dogwood Initiative registered as a third party participant and worked hard - but unsuccessfully - to defeat Lunn based on his support for increasing tanker traffic in B.C. coastal waters. The campaign said the group misrepresented his position.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for stying on top of this. I was a victim of those phone calls. I disagree that it didn't effect the outcome. If half of the 6,000 or so NDP votes had gone to Penn it would have been her seat.

It's frustrating to see these questionable actions and not see anyone (Elections Canada, Telus, RCMP) doing anything about it!

Byron Postle

Anonymous said...

Lunn got elected, but demoted today. To be replaced by a unknown female MP must smart just a bit, but I'm sure he feels lucky to have a job, any job.

RossK said...

Very nice piece Mr. W - hope it didn't make Mr. Lunn's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day too much worser.

One thing that I may have missed Mr. Lunn explain, however, is the following:

How, exactly, did the Dogwood Initiative misrepresent his position on coastal tanker traffic.

And I agree with you regarding Mr. Macleod's work in the Tyee.


Anonymous said...

It should be trivial for Telus to be able to track the true origin of the calls - has anybody contacted Telus yet?