Stephen Harper
Ottawa - Elections Canada said last week it cannot investigate political calls that are "annoying, repetitive or (of) a partisan nature" unless there are signs of intimidation or "false pretence," raising questions about how far the agency will go to probe the robocalls scandal.

The office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, which is in charge of enforcing the Elections Act, wrote to former MP Joe Volpe's lawyer, Antonio Pascale, to say it was "concluding further inquiry" into mysterious harassment calls received by Volpe supporters during the last election.

Volpe's lawyer wrote to Elections Canada on April 15, 2011, to complain that for the previous 10 days constituents in the riding were receiving calls "from persons falsely identifying themselves as calling from the Joe Volpe campaign."

The email from Elections Canada suggests such calls are not forbidden by the act.

"The act does not prohibit or regulate the use of telephone solicitations for a particular candidate or party, or the content of a call unless actual intimidation or false pretence can be shown," the email said.

The harassing calls in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence had a call display showing a North Dakota number often blamed for credit card scams. Calls from the same number have been reported in a number of other ridings across the country.

But the elections agency said the use of "spoofed" call display numbers "is not regulated by the Act.

"Consequently in most cases compliance or enforcement issues do not arise under the Act from political calls soliciting support for a candidate or party," Elections Canada said. "This simply recognizes the role played by free speech and communication in the democratic process, including speech that is annoying, repetitive or of a partisan nature."

The email was sent Feb. 21, one day before a Postmedia-Ottawa Citizen report that brought news of the so-called robocall scandal to light.

The New Democrats say the government should consider referring the mushrooming number of reports of misleading or fraudulent election calls to a public inquiry.

Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel on Wednesday evoked the name of John Gomery, the judge who presided over the inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

"Elections Canada and the RCMP are doing an investigation," she said. "If the Conservatives don't answer questions, don't produce documents, then we'll have to call Gomery."

On Wednesday, CBC reported that Elections Canada is investigating reports from Thunder Bay, Ont., of alleged voter suppression calls reported by workers in a call centre run by Responsive Marketing Group, the Conservatives' largest provider of call services.

If true, the report would be the first instance of the agency actively investigating reports beyond Guelph.

Elections Canada never comments on whether it is investigating possible violations of the act, but spokesman John Enright said Wednesday that if there is evidence that the act was violated, they will take steps.

"The commissioner does take his mandate role very seriously," he said.

The agency continues to actively investigate the pre-recorded calls, pretending to be from Elections Canada, that misdirected voters to the wrong polling station in Guelph and, possibly, in Windsor, Ont.

Those calls have been traced from a disposable cellphone registered in Joliette, Que., with the fake name Pierre Poutine to an Edmonton voice broadcasting company.

Facing questions about the calls in the House of Commons, the Conservatives shifted their defence on Wednesday, calling reports of the calls "unsubstantiated Liberal smears." Previously, the Tories had simply denied involvement and encouraged anyone with information to come forward.

The new approach suggests a return to the aggressive stance the party took against charges filed over the Conservatives' financing of the 2006 election campaign.

Party MPs repeated dismissed the "in and out" scandal as an administrative matter, took Elections Canada to court, and claimed that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand showed bias against them.

At the height of the investigation, the Conservatives voted en masse against an opposition motion expressing support in the agency in 2008.

Among those voting non-confidence in the agency were Pierre Poilievre and Dean Del Mastro, the two Conservative MPs now fronting the party's defence by suggesting anyone with relevant information refer it to Elections Canada.

Many of those who complained to Elections Canada about harassing calls have never heard back from the agency. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae suggested Wednesday that the agency may not have the resources it needs to investigate what his party alleges is a widespread pattern of deceptive calls.

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said the agency has the statutory ability to spend what it needs to spend to investigate violations of the act. He said they will be taking this seriously.

"The commissioner of Canada Elections has a network of investigators spread across Canada who have a lot of experience," he said, and added that they can draw on the expertise of the RCMP.

Veteran election lawyer Jack Siegel, of Blaney McMurtry, says the email to Volpe's lawyer suggests the agency didn't really understand the allegation being made, since the act does forbid "any pretence or contrivance" that "induces a person . . . to refrain from voting."

Senior officials from the party said Wednesday that they are certain that the Conservatives' "war room" did not take any chances with the law during the recent campaign, and pointed to apparent inconsistencies in some of the reports of apparently fraudulent or harassing calls.

On Tuesday, the procedure and house affairs committee tabled a report in response to the post-election report of Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer.

After the recent election, Mayrand sought to enhance the agency's power to examine documents that support the expenses that political parties claim in election campaigns, which would allow investigators and officials to get a better picture of how campaigns are run.

The vote on that motion was defeated in a secret vote earlier in February, which means MPs can't discuss it publicly, but sources say the NDP and Liberals voted to enhance the agency's powers but the Conservatives, who have a majority on the committee, voted against.

The Conservatives have so far declined to make public records that would show how much they paid to their robocall and call bank service providers during the last election.

Asked about the matter, Del Mastro said in question period on Wednesday that "the Conservative Party of Canada always provides all documents requested by Elections Canada."

Source: Postmedia News