Are you worried about another robocall scandal? Judging from the turnout at a townhall at St. James Anglican Church here in Guelph today, a lot of us are. Between 80 and 100 people showed up for the event organized by Fair Vote Guelph and the St. James' Environment and Social Justice Committee, and on the eve of the start of the last parliamentary session before the 2015 election, it sure sounded like there was still a lot to be concerned about even after the conviction of Michael Sona last summer. A combination of politicians, experts and ordinary citizens came out to remember how we got here, and what we should be on the look out next.The townhall was tightly organized and moved swiftly as a number of people took centre stage to talk about the effect of the robocalls. Former mayoral candidate Jason Blokhuis moderated the afternoon, which began with ordinary citizens discussing their first hand account of Election Day May 2, 2011.
Kelly McCullough, who called herself politically astute and practically cynical about politics in general, said that she didn't question for a minute when she got the automated call rerouting her to a new polling place.
"That moment I realized that as informed and as skeptical as I was, I was also embarrassingly naive," she said. "As a result I now never ever answer questions on the telephone, no surveys, not questionnaires about household purchases, or how many children that live in my household. Not even calls from candidates in my own ward who are running in municipal elections and are my own neighbours because they may not be who they say they are."
McCullough believes that she was target because she told an earlier caller that there were no circumstances where she would ever vote for Stephen Harper.
Susan Campbell, wife of 2011 Guelph Green Party nominee John Lawson, said that despite her nervousness about becoming a national media source, she felt speaking out was more important. "I really firmly believe in the importance of standing up for our democracy and making sure that the kinds of things we used to read in the papers happening in the States don't continue to happen here," she said.
Magee Maguire, who says she received three robocalls, also said that her first instinct was that these calls were American-based. "My intuition said that it came from the U.S.," she explained, "but I had no proof and I didn't know what to do with it because up to that point we didn't have those kind of problems and we had no guidelines and I didn't want to call those numbers back."
With concerns still lingering in the crowd about what may come next in 2015, and general dissatisfaction about the investigation into the events of 2011, John Dennis of the Council of Canadians called on the Commissioner of Canada Elections to re-open the investigation since all courts have agreed that Michael Sona did not act alone. Dennis quoted the CofC executive director saying, "Either the Conservative Party leaders senior were directly involved in the fraud or they were astoundingly negligent in allowing access to their voter database."
Candidates from the 2011 election were then invited to make statements from their point of view on Election Day in 2011. NDP candidate Bobbi Stewart recalled a cordial pre-election coffee meeting with Conservative candidate Marty Burke and his campaign manager Ken Morgan, which Stewart described as lovely. "As volunteers we care about democracy, we care enough to get involved," Stewart recalled telling Morgan. "[He said] 'Look, the campaign is coming, it could heat up, our policies are different, but we just wanted you to know it's not personal, we're all people.'"
On Election Day though, Stewart didn't know what to think when word started reaching her office that voters were getting calls directing them to different polling places. "Initially, [we] thought it was a hoax," she said. "We were having a wonderful time, I was too busy being a candidate and thinking about other things."
Green candidate Lawson didn't beat around the bush about the Conservative campaign saying that it knowingly wanted to deceive. "Michael Sona, prior to Election Day at the University of Guelph, went in and disrupted that polling station and what kind of cultural response or reigning in did the party do? Stonewalled and objected," Dawson explained.
"What kind of culture allows that to happen, and that's my concern," he added. "Cynically attacking our democracy and cynically anyone that doesn't agree with them. Very scary and very troubling for our democracy."
Frank Valeriote could not be in attendance, but he did submit a letter to Fair Vote Guelph to be read to those participating in the townhall:
Brian Gillis, Vice President of Communications for the Guelph Liberals, was at the townhall and said. "I was kind of baffled and amazed at how widespread this campaign was."
He also addressed the Liberals own issues with robocalls locally, a public service call that was meant to outline Burke's stand on abortion but was never identified as coming from the Valeriote campaign. "We messed up making that call," Gillis said. "We set up rules and procedures to make sure this would never happen again."
Gillis wanted to point out that robocalls were a communications tool that are useful to a campaign and not just meant for "malicious intent," but the entire episode in 2011 pointed out that there were a lot of holes in the policy governing the use of that tool. "It turns out it wasn't that clear what the rules and regulations were for robocalls in political campaigns," he said.
Blokhuis then asked if there was any representative of the local Conservative Party in the audience. There wasn't, but Sharon Sommerville of Fair Vote Canada Waterloo contributed some information she got courtesy of the Conservative MP for Kitchener-Conestoga. "I did meet with a Conservative MP last Tuesday morning, Harold Albrecht, and in our conversation we there to talk about electoral reform and robocalls came up and he said that four and a half years later that it was a problem with information coming from Elections Canada," she said. "So he was once again off loading responsibility of the actions of the Conservative Party to another group."
Next on the speakers list was supposed to be Anne Boudra, Guelph's Federal Returning Officer. She was supposed to read the victim impact statement she read in court at Sona's October sentencing hearing, but she got a call on Thursday night from a lawyer in Ottawa telling her that she couldn't.
"Last Thursday, Ms. Boudra phoned me to tell me that she could not come as she had been called by a lawyer from Ottawa who told her that her position as returning officer precluded her involvement in politics,"said scrutineer Elizabeth McCare to laughs from the audience. "When I heard the Returning Officer's Victim impact statement, I was quite moved. I'm disappointed that Anne Boudra is not be here today [to read it]."
That fact that a lawyer warned Boudra off of reading her statement at the townhall was of great interest to those in attendance. McCrae said that she tried to get a copy of the victim impact statement from the court, but was stymied by red tape. "After the call on Thursday night, I went to court on Friday and they wouldn't give it to me because it's a long complicated procedure," she explained adding that when the transcript can eventually be ordered for something like "$6 per page."
"You have to wonder about the timing of Thursday night, we only had one day to try and get it and I wonder if that was intentional or not, or one whose part it was," McCrae added.
"From what I remember her saying it was an issue of all hell breaking loose on that day and she felt that many people personally blamed her for what had happened, and her reputation was attacked as somehow she as the representative of Elections Canada was held responsible for it," added Susan Watson about the statement.
Next Watson talked about being a witness to the Sona trial. "For me, what was shocking was that in the admitted facts - which covered the technical evidence - was the level of premeditation, co-ordination, sophistication and criminality [of the case]," she explained. "Clearly Elections Canada did not have the resources or the powers to properly investigate this [case] and bring all those involved to justice."
Watson repeated the plea for a full judicial review with a judge that can subpoena all evidence and witnesses. "Personally, it burns me that Michael Sona is still claiming innocence and that he knows nothing of what happened," she said.
Michael Keefer, who is presently writing a book about the robocall scandal, continued the theme of justice not being delivered in the final verdict of the Sona trial. "I was able to interview Michael Sona in Ottawa at some length," he said. "But the true perversity of this trial, which I would describe as having very serious elements of farce, is that the technical evidence available, and available to anyone that reads the Elections Canada court documents, points unambiguously to the assistant manager of the Conservative campaign, Andrew Prescott."
Keefer further identified three big issues to come out of the robocall scandal and its fallout. "We have a very serious problem in front of us in the form of a corrupt climate of behaviour within one of our leading political organizations in this country," he explained. "We have what appears to be a secondary problem of a climate of, what might be intellectual corruption, or a climate of investigative incompetency within agencies that should be looking into criminality of this kind. And there's an additional problem with the media but you don't need the fingers of more than one hand to total the number of journalists that have done outstanding work on this issue."
In summation, former provincial Green Party candidate Steve Dyck put forward that the scandal was prood that the entire electoral system needed fiing. "Our system rewards the worst kind of behaviour and fraudulent robocalls are just one approach to voter suppression or intentionally reducing voter turnout," he said. "Adversarial and toxic behaviour causes ordinary people to tune politics out because a two per cent swing in votes can mean 100 per cent power. So we can expect more attack ads, more misinformation, more smear campaigns and more robocalls."
With the end of all the presentations, all that was left was to open the floor to the crowd. Some wanted to talk about what other steps could be taken now that both the criminal trial of Sona and the Elections Canada investigation are over. One person suggested that the United Nations should be contacted in order to bring election observers to Canada this fall.
"One thing that could be mentioned as a form of possible action is that members of the legal profession in Guelph, and elsewhere, could look at their colleagues in this robocalls affair because there are quite senior lawyers working for the Conservative party in this affair that pop up at various points and I think there's a significant question that some of their behaviour calls for disciplinary measures on the part of the legal profession," Keefer added.
Other people, like the day's first speaker Kelly McCullough, discussed how they now refused to answer political questions on the telephone. Most though, wanted to express their disappointment that only one person is going to jail for the crime. "It's a complex situation and having sat through the trial I have to ask how is it that agents of an organization, acting in the interests of an organization, using the resources of an organization can carry out a crime, but the organization has no liability whatsoever," Watson said to applause.
Although much of the townhall was about re-living the past, there was still some concern about the future and what voter suppression efforts may be coming down the pipe. "In terms of predictions for this year's election, what I would suggest is that we can anticipate another relatively low tech form of fraud," Keefer explained. "I say low tech because by comparison to what the Republicans do in the United States, robocalls are low tech."
In particular, Keefer's concerned about how the Fair Elections Act has legalized the use of cell phones in polling stations, and how the Conservatives have built a phone app what will allow them to access the Conservative voter database via their smart phones.
"They will able able to mount immediate identification challenges from their databases," Keefer said. "The purpose behind this is to not so much prevent those people from voting, as to gum up the whole works."
As in create longer wait times at the polls. "They'll perhaps think twice if them have a three hour or four hour [wait]."