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.