On the Need for a Royal Commission on Electoral Practices in Canada
The declining credibility of elections in many countries is creating a crisis of legitimacy severing bonds of trust that once linked citizens to the institutions that govern us. Without credible proof that those governing on our behalf really have earned our supportive consent in free and fair elections, one of humanity’s greatest innovations is rendered null and void.
The implications of this breakdown put in doubt one of the West’s premier claims, namely that its core polities are beacons of democracy worthy of emulation. The democratic deficit arising from episodes of electoral malfeasance makes a mockery of the West’s frequent assertions that its expansionary enterprises are benign efforts to spread the benefits of governance through voter choice rather than the armed impositions of autocrats.
As shall be established in the main body of this essay, the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 in the United States are both textbook examples of systemic fraud that ushered into power the losing candidate. Many of the tactics for cheating developed primarily on the right wing of the political spectrum in the United States are being broadly exported. The evidence is mounting, for instance, that the unfolding controversy over the conduct and outcome of the 2011 federal election in Canada involves violations of the law by operatives who seem to have moved easily between the orbit of the Republican Party in the United States and the orbit of the Conservative Party in Canada.
The importation into Canada of Republican Party tactics for stealing votes and elections is an extension of a very old process of that has seen the constitutional monarchy in the northern half of North America assimilated more and more into the political culture of the republic to the south. This process of assimilation tends to wreak havoc on Canada’s institutions of parliamentary democracy derived primarily from the Westminster Parliament in Great Britain.
As the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party of Canada looks more and more to the right-wing of the political spectrum in the United States for models of how to win and maintain power, the integrity of Canada’s own indigenous institutions of self-governance is increasingly imperiled. The assault on the indigenous conservatism inherited from the era of the civil war in British North America has been particularly brutal. Recall that Canada emerged from the conservative side of the conflict remembered in history as the American Revolution. The protests in Boston Harbor against the taxation of East India Company tea were a liberal attack on the conservatism of the British imperial red coats who are the founding fathers of my country, the polity that would in due course become the coast-to-coast-to-coast Dominion of Canada.
The activity of data collection and data mining in modern-day electioneering, including the most sophisticated forms of electoral cheating, tends to be organized along transnational lines. The development of digitalized electoral strategies encourages the application of hardware, software and professional expertise in ways that optimize efficiencies of scale by transcending national boundaries. The result is that the idiosyncrasies of many political cultures are denigrated not only in Canada but in many polities throughout the world where the democratic impulses of citizens are expressed through institutions rooted in the details of local history. In working through the issues that are arising from the electoral scandal in Canada, therefore, there is an opportunity to address more general sets of problem that are stripping legitimacy everywhere from procedures that are supposed to epitomize democracy in action.
Voter Suppression and Telephone Fraud
Among the revelations driving the political scandal presently sweeping Canada are indications that the triumphant party in the federal election of 2011 stole at least a portion of the vote by effectively disenfranchising some Canadians. Canadian law is clearly violated by voter suppression together with the fraudulent communications that often accompany it. Thus the operatives who study and apply techniques of voter suppression and related scams have ample cause to stay hidden from public view.
As the tactics of voter suppression move from cyberspace to the tangible world, real people are robbed of their franchise. This methodology for stealing votes and elections is just one of many strategies in a big and expanding repertoire of digital cheating in the age of the Internet. Computation through the interaction of high-powered computers throws up many new means of seizing power by manoeuvring around the rules, structures and referees that not long ago could be counted on to delver relatively free and fair elections.
As with so many other facets of human interaction, the revolution in information technology has swept aside old ways of doing things in electioneering. Some of the outcomes of this transformative surge are more retrograde than progressive. Those travelling the path to political power by engaging in digital chicanery in and around ballot boxes or voting machines often run roughshod over the very hallmarks of civil democracy once held up as the pride of the so-called West.
Many of the contemporary techniques of voter suppression were first developed and refined by Republican Party strategists in the United States. As Ron Shaiko, a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Centre at Dartmouth University observed, “In the U.S. the people who work to suppress voter turnout are the Republicans for a simple reason. Historically, the lower the turnout, the better it is for Republicans. High turnout means Democratic wins.”[i]
One means of suppressing votes has been to harass voters with obnoxious calls ostensibly coming from their preferred party. In an explanation that resembles similar reports of wrongdoing emanating from the Canadian election of 2011, Mark Crispin Miller outlines a Republican tactic for cheating in the US mid-term election of 2006. Miller writes, “The Bush Republicans deployed harassing robo-calls–obnoxious taped appeals, ostensibly from Democrats, that jammed your phone lines, making you so livid that, theoretically, you’d vote Republican or not at all–in at least 53 House districts nationwide”[ii]
Republican techniques to suppress votes are but a small part of a large and growing playbook. There is a large and rich literature on this subject. Much of it demonstrates that the presidential elections of both 2000 and 2004 were stolen by George W. Bush and his supporters. After studying the evidence on the 2004 election, University of Guelph English Professor Michael Keefer agrees that Bush could not have won if the votes had been counted accurately.[iii] He estimates that about 5 million votes for the Democratic Party candidate John Kerry went missing. Keefer concludes, “Previous elections were crooked, and sometimes stolen, but since 2004 there has been no more reason to trust the official results of any election in the United States than in Guatemala or Kenya.”[iv]
The effect of the many indications that Republican Party’s big black bag of dirty tricks has been imported into Canada has tainted the mandate of the Conservative Party whose candidates took control of a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons during the federal election of May 2, 2011. This is a date that, I predict, will come to live in infamy in future Canadian history books. The scandal over electoral fraud and voter suppression is injecting itself into Canadian consciousness and Canadian politics just as the opposition parties are trying to regroup and renew their leadership.
A major spur to this process was the surprisingly sudden loss by cancer of Jack Layton. Under Layton’s leadership the left-leaning New Democratic Party was brought for the first time to the status of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition based in large measure on enticing votes away from the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc was created to promote the sovereign independence of Quebec.
The robocon scandal at first seemed to involve only a small number of electoral districts. But since this report on March 2nd the numbers have gone up from thirty electoral ridings to 60 and most recently 200
Thomas Mulcair, a very adept politician from Quebec, emerged from the contest to replace Jack Layton. Mulcair’s election was marred by what the NDP called a “massive, orchestrated attempt to thwart democracy.” Michael Geist reports that “10,000 computers were used in a distributed denial-of-service attack designed to overwhelm the online voting system and effectively render it unusable for authorized voters.”[v] The Internet voting system that was supposed to permit thousands of NDP members, some at the Toronto convention and some not, to take part in the ballot-by-ballot selection of a new leader.[vi] The episode adds to the body of evidence that the legal, administrative and regulatory facets of electioneering are not keeping up with new devices for digital cheating aimed at obstructing the right of Canadians to vote for parliamentarians and for candidates within political parties.
The robocon scandal comes at a time when the Liberal Party has been humbled in a dramatic downward slide from the heights of Jean Chretien’s majority government to the successively diminished levels of support afforded Liberal Leaders. While Paul Martin briefly held onto a dramatically reduced mandate to govern, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were both consigned to the opposition benches in the House of Commons. Now Bob Rae is taking his turn at the helm of the national party that has slipped to third party status from its former glory as the dominant force in Canadian politics and the Canadian government throughout much of the twentieth century. Rae moves into the dimmed limelight presently afforded the interim Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
A former premier of Ontario, a Rhodes scholar, and an elected MP by the time he was 30, Rae moved from student politics at the University of Toronto to national politics in 1968 when he worked to help elect Pierre Elliot Trudeau as prime minister of Canada. Rae’s zigzag during his long career as a parliamentarian runs from the Liberal Party to a long stint in the New Democratic Party and back to the Liberals. This trajectory of experience puts him in a strategic position to advance the agenda of political cooperation called for by the impressive NDP leadership candidate, Nathan Cullen. The existence of three political parties in the middle and centre of the Canadian political spectrum together with the persistence of the Bloc Quebecois gives the right-wing Conservative Party the upper hand until the political forces represented in the opposition benches of Parliament can somehow consolidate their organizational and electoral effectiveness.
Bob Rae made a statesman-like move in March of 2012. Responding to the Canadian public’s growing dismay over the deceptiveness of some live and automated political telephone messages delivered during the last federal election, the interim leader of the Liberal caucus in Parliament called for a Royal Commission. One of the main deceptions involved the communicating of messages wrongfully attributed to Elections Canada. As of early April Elections Canada has received almost 45,000 communications concerning fraudulent live calls and robocalls including those that sought to send non-Conservative voters to non-existent polling stations.
The staff of Marc Mayrand, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, is investigating allegations of illegal interventions in the electoral process in about 200 of Canada’s 308 federal electoral districts.[vii] The affected ridings are situated throughout Canada’s 10 provinces and in one of Canada’s three federal territories. The chief investigator on the case has opened up 250 distinct files, some involving the consolidation of multiple overlapping complaints. Because of Canada’s first-past-the-post system of electing MPs, the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons rests on a mere 6,201 votes in 14 electoral districts.[viii]
The robocon scandal has generated a number of petitions, one of which asks the Canadian Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and another of which asks him to establish a Royal Commission on the electoral fiasco. [ix]The Council of Canadians in partnership with local residents in 7 ridings are challenging in court some of the outcomes of voting in the 2011 federal election. Invoking section 524 of the Canada Elections Act, the Federal Court of Canada has been asked to address a number of accusations including those of voter suppression through “calls that misdirected electors to the wrong poll or calls of a harassing nature intended to discourage support for a particular candidate.”
The Council of Canadians is requesting trials to consider allegations in the following ridings:
- Don Valley East: The Toronto riding where Conservative Joe Daniel defeated Liberal incumbent Yasmin Ratansi by 890 votes.
- Winnipeg South Centre, where Liberal Anita Neville was defeated by Conservative Joyce Batemen by 722 votes. Neville said on the eve of the election and on election day, Liberal voters in her riding received calls directing them to the wrong polling station, and earlier in the campaign, voters received harassing calls from fake Liberal callers.
- Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, where Conservative Kelly Block held off a challenge from New Democrat Nettie Wiebe, by 538 votes.
- Vancouver Island North, where Conservative John Duncan, now minister of aboriginal affairs, won over New Democrat Ronna-Rae Leonard by 1,827 votes. According to the Comox Valley Record, some voters in the riding have reported receiving automated calls directing them to non-existent polling stations.
- Yukon, where Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell was defeated by Conservative Ryan Leef by 132 votes. The Yukon News has reported that identified opposition supporters in the riding received calls telling them their polling station had moved. Elections Canada has interviewed witnesses in the riding.
- Nipissing-Timiskaming in northern Ontario, where Conservative Jay Aspin beat incumbent Liberal MP Anthony Rota by 18 votes. A Liberal source said Rota didn’t want to be seen as a sore loser by launching his own challenge.
- Elmwood-Transcona in Manitoba, where Conservative Lawrence Toet defeated New Democrat incumbent Jim Maloway by 300 votes. The NDP says voters in the riding have reported receiving calls directing them to the wrong polling stations.
If the relevant courts are persuaded that illegal or irregular interventions altered the outcome of particular votes, judges can nullify the results and call byelections in the affected ridings. Other court challenges are being mounted by defeated candidates. It remains unclear what legal proceedings, if any, will arise with respect to Guelph where 7,600 robocalls sending voters to wrong polling stations are known to have taken place.[x]
The purpose of the Royal Commission would be to diagnose what really happened in many local situations and from a broader national perspective. It would look deeply into the festering problems infecting Canadian elections and propose possible cures for ailments seen to be undermining the health of our body politic. On his way to demanding a Royal Commission, Bob Rae responded to news that Elections Canada had been flooded with tens of thousands of communications reflecting public consternation with the conduct of the 2011 election. Rae exclaimed in the House of Commons, “This is an absolutely unprecedented situation. We’re in unchartered waters. We’ve never seen anything like this.”[xi]
This continuing controversy concerning the practices, rules and alleged violations of existing electioneering laws in Canada has been described as the robocon scandal. The robocon scandal was originally dubbed the robocall scandal. Gradually the crimes entailed in both the commission and the cover up of voter suppression and its attending frauds are emerging as a core controversy of the robocon scandal in Canada.
A Royal Commission on Electoral Practices
As suggested by the rapidly changing configurations of party representation in the House of Commons, parliamentary debate addressing the subject of elections is inevitably fraught with acrimony. Such parliamentary debate is inescapably shot through with competition for political advantage. Moreover Elections Canada, the federal agency charged to oversee national elections, has itself become so deeply mired in political controversy that its capacity to combine the roles of investigator, arbiter and honest broker is increasingly circumscribed. Indeed, the setup, mandate and operations of Elections Canada may turn out to be prominent among the topics of investigation.
The flood of political controversy engulfing Elections Canada adds strength to the case that Canada needs an appropriately-mandated, carefully-staffed and generously-resourced Royal Commission on electoral practices. A Royal Commission on electioneering would extend one of Canada’s more constructive traditions of statecraft that has seen about 50 of these exercises in nonpartisan investigation unfold since the Dominion of Canada was founded in 1867. In the second half of the twentieth century royal commissions have included those on bilingualism and biculturalism, on the status of women, on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline, and on Aboriginal peoples.
The activities of a Royal Commission on electoral practices would build on the work of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing sometimes referred to as the Lortie Commission.[xii] The work of the Lortie Commission took place between 1989 and 1991. In order to be successful, the new investigative enterprise would have to establish a platform that would both be, and seen to be, sufficiently nonpartisan, depoliticized and esteemed to carry out the necessary work of a careful and balanced investigation into the real or imagined maladies thought to infect electioneering in Canada.
A Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada would need to have the necessary capacities to assess whether or not the existing laws governing elections have been breached. But that assessment would have to be extended to proposals for positive change. The Royal Commission would be called on to determine if the existing regulatory regime of electioneering in Canada in both its broad outlines and more particular details is capable of delivering free and fair elections to Canadian citizens under present conditions. If not, what should be done to inject more equity and fairness into electoral contests?
What should be done so that citizens can clearly see that our elections are grounded in regulations and enforcement mechanisms sufficiently robust to make the field of political contestation level enough for reasonably equitable and constructive engagements between political rivals? How can this leveling be done in ways that afford sufficient latitude for political publicity, for public access to relevant information, for open debate, for appropriate levels of privacy, for freedom of association, and for freedom from undue political harassment? What should be the appropriate balance between subsidies from government and funding from the so-called private sector in financing election campaigns in Canada?
Among the proliferation of allegations that have come to light in the robocon scandal is that the campaign of MP Frank Valeriote, the successful Liberal candidate in Guelph Ontario, employed robocalls to criticize his Conservative Party opponent on the issue of abortion.[xiii] The calls were recorded by pro-choice proponent, Laurie McDonald. Her message did not mention a connection to Valeriote’s campaign. The calls, therefore, violated electoral rules, although not to the same degree as those live and prerecorded messages that fraudulently invoked the authority of Elections Canada to misdirect voters to non-existent polling stations.
One result is that the Liberal Party is not exempt from alleged misdeeds of its own in the Robocon scandal. Nevertheless Bob Rae was unbending in his insistence that the time has come to institute a Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada. The interim Liberal leader would not back down from his demand that a nonpartisan body of high judicial esteem must be extended broad powers to investigate the maelstrom of allegations and counter-allegations swirling around the federal election of 2011 as well as those of 2006 and 2008. Standing from his seat in the front benches of the House of Commons, Rae declared, “Nobody on this side has anything to fear from a Royal Commission. We ask for it. We demand it. The people of Canada require it.”[xiv]
As one of Canada’s most experienced practitioners of parliamentary politics, Bob Rae cannot easily be dismissed when it comes to a demand as strategically central to the integrity of Canadian democracy as this one. We need a Royal Commission on electoral practices to investigate the principles, procedures, laws, officials, institutions, and technologies affecting the process of running federal elections in Canada.
The terms of the Royal Commission’s mandate must be sufficiently broad to allow for an objective, third-party assessment of the sources of friction enflaming a host of heated interactions, including in court, between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party and the federal agency currently charged to oversee federal elections in Canada.
The author, Professor Anthony Hall took part in the National Day of Protest on March 11, 2012. From the steps of the Calgary City Hall he proposed a Royal Commission on Electoral Practices. Two days later interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae advocated such a Royal Commission in the Canadian House of Commons.
A Declining Respect for Political People Bordering on Contempt
The mounting of a Royal Commission presents the best hope to begin closing the hemorrhaging leak in public trust draining vitality from Canada’s wounded system of parliamentary democracy. The connection between the robocon scandal and the loss of public confidence in government has been noted recently by Preston Manning.
Manning is the Alberta-based founder of the political movement that acquired control of the federal government through the long march of the Harper Conservatives to majority status in 2011 in the House of Commons. Mr. Manning was especially outspoken in responding to reports that the Conservative Party had sought to negate the votes of non-Conservatives through deceptive telephone calls wrongfully said to emanate from Elections Canada. These calls sent targeted individuals, mostly non-Conservatives disproportionately over 60 years of age, to nonexistent polling stations.[xv]
Mr. Manning said, “I think its deplorable these voter-suppression tactics, be it by robocalls or any other form.” He added, “The Conservatives and all politicians have to worry about declining respect, its bordering on contempt for political people.” The eminence grise of the organization that seems to have replaced the Liberals as the so-called natural governing party was responding to a recent poll. It showed that only 1% of those asked had a favourable opinion of politicians whereas 58% characterized politicians as “unprincipled.”[xvi]
The trend spotted by Manning is hardly unique to Canada. The loss of public confidence in the integrity of elections specifically and in government more generally is a broad transnational phenomenon that has been gathering force since at least the 1970s.[xvii] A large number of citizens in many countries feel betrayed by a system that they believe treats their votes as commodities to be bought and sold by conniving hucksters who lack scruples and who lack any allegiance whatsoever to the public interest and the common good.
According to Reuters commentator Stella Dawson, the spectacle of “Western democracy in crisis”— this “government credibility problem”— stems “from the perception that the political elite is too closely tied to the financial elite.”[xviii] If one takes the view that this tie between political and financial elites involves more than mere perceptions, then the seizure of government authority by tactics such as voter suppression is just one more example of the corporatist embrace of deregulation as a Darwinian expression of survival of the fittest. Under rule of right-wing governors the cult of deregulation became the holy grail of an increasingly ubiquitous commercial religion whose high priests have been Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
Changing Versions of Conservatism and the Erosion of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada
Ever since it became clear that that US president George W. Bush only “won” the federal election of 2000 through a concerted campaign of cheating followed by improper intervention in the political process by Republican-appointed judges from the era of Reagan and Bush Sr., there is growing unease in many Western countries. The broadly felt perception is that something is amiss when it comes to the basic democratic task of running free and fair elections.[xix] Given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power by situating his own political career in the neo-conservative revolution implemented after 9/11 by the American government of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, any suggestion of the northward spread of electoral corruption from the United States is especially volatile in Canadian politics.
As many see it, Stephen Harper is following Preston Manning’s lead in throwing overboard the Red Tory tradition of the indigenous Progressive Conservative Party and replacing it with the right-wing conservatism that finds its most distilled and radical expressions in the US Republican Party. Permeating the psychology of the robocon scandal is the pervasive unease of many Canadians with the apparent preference of our federal government’s current leadership for the US versions of conservatism over the more left-leaning heritage of Canadian conservatism.
This now-orphaned Red Tory tradition of conservatism goes back to the Tory opposition directed against the whiggish secessionists in British North America who took up arms in 1776 with the hopes of transforming the Thirteen British Colonies into a United States of America.[xx] There are many in Canada who remember and resent the zeal of the long knives led by Stephen Harper in their haste to replace theProgressive Conservatives with a Canadian clone of the Republican Party. As the weird machinations of the Tea Party and its aspiring presidential acolytes attest, US conservatives can become easily confused and disoriented in a country born of a liberal revolt against the conservatism inherent in the struggle to retain the unity of British North America.
Stephen Harper’s turn towards the conservatism of the Republican Party left behind the Red Toryism associated with, for instance, the politics of Joe Clark, David Orchard, David Crombie, Keith Martin, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Robert Stanfield, John Diefenbaker, Dalton Camp, Flora MacDonald, Robert Borden, Stephen Leacock, and John A. Macdonald.[xxi] In my estimation the real founder of the Red Tory tradition in Canada is Sir William Johnson. Johnson was in the mid-1700s the first Superintendent of the British Imperial Indian Department and a leading practitioner of the Covenant Chain of treaty alliances with the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy and related Indian nations.
It was Canada’s Red Tory Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who renewed and deepened Canada’s integration into the British Empire with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway as facilitated by the passage in the British parliament of the British North American Act of 1867. The building of the CP Railway helped to incorporate British Columbia into the coast-to-coast imperialism of the Dominion of Canada, a constitutional monarchy wherein Her Majesty’s first minister is now Stephen Harper.
This history of this primal split in North American political culture helps to put the symbolism entailed in the robcon scandal in its larger temporal and political context. Underneath the broadly-based condemnations of the Harper Conservatives for electoral fraud boils the anxiety of many Canadians who fear that the sovereignty of Canada is being further undermined by yet another form of creeping colonialism.
Does the robocon scandal signify that Canada is being degraded and demeaned through an enlargement of the dirty tricks commonly associated with some of the world’s most raucous and expensive electoral arenas in the United States? The essence of this fear of being engulfed by the formal controls and informal influences of a foreign power is that Canadian ways of doing things will continue to give ground to American models of victory at any cost—- victory through whatever one can get away with, no matter how ruthless, unethical, deleterious or illegal.
A Primer on the Some of the Background Factors Influencing The Crisis of Legitimacy Engulfing Canadian Democracy
The widespread political desire among the people of Canada to pin down accountability for alleged wrongdoing in the electoral process is well placed. Our capacity and willingness to vote for our political governors rests at the very heart of our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Our collective exercise of the franchise in elections constitutes our primary means of making sure our governors act on our behalf and with our consent. Our right and responsibility to vote emanates from sources deep in the history of popular struggle against the imposition of top-down repression. Some of the markers that this repression continues yet are to be seen in the campaign of voter suppression, part of a litany of allegations that tongue-in-cheek media reports would associate with the machinations of the phantom Conservative, Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street in Joliette Quebec.
Elections today are permeated by a host of new forces not even contemplated by those who drafted the original statutes outlining the rules and procedures for electoral contests. Foremost among these forces is the power of interactive computation that permeates society through the Internet. The rules of electioneering in Canada cover many subjects including the act of voting, tabulating the results of voting, tabulating the amounts of money changing hands in various facets of electioneering, and arbitrating many different types of disputes when they arise.
In Canada the primary rules for electioneering go back to the Dominion Elections Act of 1920. It is this federal legislation that created the post of Chief Electoral Officer. Reporting not to the government but rather to the House of Commons through its Speaker, the chief Crown officer in charge of federal elections was afforded a status comparable to that of a deputy minister with the same tenure as a superior court judge. In 1996 the Canada Elections Act was amended to create a register of electors. In 2000 the Canada Elections Act was modified to put in place explicit and precise spending limits on third parties such as corporations and labour unions. In 2002 the terms of reference were widened to cover nomination contests within registered parties. In 2007 another amendment established provisions for fixed election days.
One of the major challenges to the constitutionality of the Canada Elections Act as legislated in 2000 came from Stephen Harper in his prior capacity as president of the National Citizens Coalition. In the case of Harper versus Canada the future prime minister argued that legal limits on the spending of third-party advertisers in election contests runs contrary to the guarantees of freedom of expression and association enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. [xxii]
Interestingly the underlying issues were very similar to those brought before the US Supreme Court in the case of Citizens United versus the Federal Elections Commission. In 2004 the Supreme Court in Canada went against Harper’s contentions by overturning a decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Canadian jurists maintained that spending limits were a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression whereas in the United States the country’s top judges pointed future electioneering in the opposite direction. In 2010 the US Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in American election contests.[xxiii]
The political contentiousness of electioneering came to the forefront of Canadian politics once again in the weeks following the federal vote of 2008. Prime Minister Harper called this election in contravention of the provisions of the federal law on fixed election dates. Harper’s own government had passed this law through Parliament in 2007. When the Parliament reconvened after the late summer election of 2008 the Harper Conservatives, once again in a minority position, proposed money bills that included a provision to do away with the existing system of public subsidies to political parties based on a formula of about two dollars for every vote obtained in the previous election. All the opposition parties quickly rallied around their shared hostility to this measure. The result was that they established a base of agreement for a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons.
Some believe that deep and sacrosanct traditions in the constitutional heritage of parliamentary governance were tragically violated in what happened next. The leadership of the Liberal Party and the NDP Party agreed to form a coalition in the House of Commons. With provisional support from the Bloc Quebecois the plan could have produced the basis for a fragile but viable parliamentary majority in the House of Commons sufficient to send the Harper Conservatives back to the opposition benches. Rather than accept the right and responsibility of the majority of MPs to proceed with their planned vote, Stephen Harper went to Governor-General Michaelle Jean to request Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada to shut down the workings of Parliament through a device known as prorogation.
No precedent then existed throughout the Commonwealth, the family of nations whose constitutional traditions are derived from Great Britain, for this use of prorogation to avert a non-confidence vote in Parliament. This political abuse of the institutions of the Canadian Crown offers yet another demonstration of the crisis of legitimacy in Canadian parliamentary democracy.
The controversy begs the question of what is permissible and what is improper when the imperatives of politics clash with the core ideals of the Canadian Crown as vested in the Governor-General’s trust responsibility to safeguard the integrity of constitutional governance. What happens when the political culture of the republic to the south is made to overwhelm the governing principles of Canada, a constitutional monarchy where the Governor-General retains a small but vital number of discretionary powers mostly pertaining to the timing and circumstances of federal elections?
The reserve powers vested in the primary embodiment of the Canadian Crown are meant to hold the political contestations between politicians within the bounds of the rule of law. Like the Queen in Great Britain, the Canadian Governor-General is meant to inhabit a place of authority beyond politics, outside the daily hubbub of the partisan struggle for political advantage and leverage.
The Governor-General is supposed to be the trustee safeguarding, for instance, the laws meant to protect endangered minorities from the political incursions of the powerful. It falls, for instance, on the Governor-General and Her Majesty the Queen to safeguard the integrity and implementation of Crown-Aboriginal treaties that were negotiated to last for as long as the waters flow and the grass grows. When, therefore, a Canadian prime minister conspires as Stephen Harper did in 2008 to entrap the Governor-General in his own web of political machinations in defiance of Canada’s constitutional heritage, he profoundly endangers the continuity of peace, order and good government.
To add insult to injury Stephen Harper went again to the Governor-General in December of 2009 to seek and obtain a second prorogation to shut down all the business of Parliament. This second prorogation is widely seen as a tactic to block the progress of parliamentary hearings that were beginning to cast light on the transfer of prisoners by the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities for possible torture. The testimony and documentation put forward by Richard Colvin, a principled civil servant who had served in Afghanistan, was bringing to light very explicit connections linking the Prime Minister’s Office to the torture of Afghan detainees.[xxiv]
In an article accusing Stephen Harper of being “in contempt of Parliament,” University of Ottawa Constitutional Law Professor, Errol P. Mendes, observed, “The early decision to shut down Parliament was clearly to avoid the continuing scrutiny of a House of Commons committee over the mounting evidence of willful blindness by the Harper government over the transfer of Afghan detainees to a substantial risk of torture. This is potentially a war crime and one of the most serious allegations any government has faced in the history of Canada.”[xxv]
The constitutional crisis provoked by Stephen Harper’s two “requests” to the Governor-General to shut down Parliament through prorogation points to the internal contradictions between Canada’s adherence to, on the one hand, the parliamentary heritage of Great Britain’s unwritten constitution and, on the other, its adoption in 1982 of a written constitution including a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the Crown tradition of law Parliament is “supreme” whereas section 52(1) of theConstitution Act, 1982 describes itself and other written instruments formulated in Great Britain as “the supreme law of Canada, and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect.”
In averting in 2008 an inevitable vote of non-confidence in Parliament Stephen Harper showed contempt for the principle of parliamentary supremacy. This unwritten principle of responsible government grows not from statute but from the depths of historical struggle, including a civil war in England, whose outcome was to amalgamate the forces of Crown and Parliament. The principle of parliamentary supremacy vests political authority in elected members of the House of Commons, not in any single individual as is the case in the United States where the US president is the federal government’s chief executive.
It is the prerogative of elected MPs to configure themselves as they see fit in order to demonstrate the capacity or incapacity of political associations of parliamentarians to enact laws through majority votes in the House of Commons. In this fashion the dominant group or groups of elected MPs are able to demonstrate to the Governor-General and ultimately to the people of Canada that they are the custodians of sufficient public confidence to exercise the levers of power in the federal government.
When the dominant group or groups disassemble to the point where a want of confidence is demonstrated through their inability to muster majority support for the passage of laws in the House of Commons, then the Governor-General is bound to do one of two things. After a vote of non-confidence Her Majesty’s representative can call a General Election or, depending on the specific circumstances, he or she can conduct meetings on behalf of the Canadian Crown with the leadership embodying other possible configurations of party representation and organization. If the Governor-General determines that this alternative leadership seems both willing and capable of forming a viable coalition capable of passing laws through majority votes in the House of Commons, then the principal personification of the Canadian Crown has the option not to call a General Election. He or she can sanction a reconfiguration of government and party in Parliament.[xxvi]
In 2008 especially, neither of these two courses of parliamentary tradition were adhered to. Instead Parliament was shut down while Stephen Harper raised the equivalent of an American Red Scare. Facing the prospect of losing power the imperiled prime minister presented the prospect of an illegitimate reconfiguration of party alignments in the House of Commons as a potential coup d’etat, as a dark conspiracy of “separatists and socialists.” In this tawdry fashion Harper was able to divert much public attention away from the constitutional crisis he had fomented in pressuring the Governor-General to preempt the vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons that would otherwise have taken place.
While different in some details, the constitutional crisis of 2008 invoked memories of the King-Byng constitutional crisis of 1926.[xxvii] In the older episode Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy refused to dissolve Parliament at the request of Prime Minister William Mackenzie King. King’s big break came after an industrial dispute in the Rockefeller-owned coal mines of Colorado led to the slaughter of workers and their family members in the Ludlow massacre of 1914.
Along with Ivy Lee, King was hired to help John D. Rockefeller Jr. to develop and sell an agenda for taming and subverting trade unions.[xxviii] Like Harper, King sought to undermine Canada’s constitutional heritage in the British Empire in order to hasten Canada’s integration into the political economy of the informal American Empire. This empire of fortune would come to dominate global geopolitics through militarism, commerce, and cultural influences like Hollywood movies and rock and roll music during the second half of the twentieth century.[xxix]
Like King, Harper was able to make political hay by playing on dangerous prejudices. Harper’s attack on Canada’s constitutional heritage in the British Empire seemed to confirm George Grant’s prophetic prediction in Lament for a Nation. From Grant’s Red Tory perspective, the Liberal Party’s preemption in 1965 of indigenous conservatism was symbolized by the political defeat of John Diefenbaker. The political demise of Red Tory John Diefenbaker pointed to the end of Canada’s functioning as a genuinely sovereign nation. Grant’s foresight is reflected in the trajectory of assimilationist forces that motivated Brian Mulroney and now Stephen Harper to try to outdo even the pro-US continentalism epitomized by the Liberal Party politics of David Rockefeller’s Canadian adviser, W.L.M. King.[xxx]
There were huge powers of intimidation brought to bear by Prime Minister Harper on Michaelle Jean, a former CBC broadcaster appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the days when the Liberal Party of Canada was in firm control of the national government. As Jean faced Harper’s “request” that she break with parliamentary tradition to provide the anxious prime minister with a reprieve from a vote of non-confidence, the Queen’s representative responded to the emergency by assembling a team of constitutional experts led by veteran political scientist Peter Russell.
With the advice of this impromptu assembly of academic elders the Governor-General tried to save face by attaching conditions to her acceptance of Harper’s ultimatum that she must shut down Parliament rather than allow a non-confidence vote to go forward.[xxxi] Stephen Harper was thus granted his unconstitutional time out so that the coalition of elected MPs aligning against his Conservative Party could be made to retreat in a blaze of negative media coverage.
Who knows what would have happened if the Governor-General had not caved. Apparently one of the options being considered in the Harper camp was to go over the head of the Governor-General directly to the Office of Queen Elizabeth.[xxxii] As a Black woman of Haitian ancestry and the wife of a well known proponent of Quebec’s independence, Jean must have been aware of her vulnerability to the kind of pit bull media attack campaigns for which the Harper Conservatives have become notorious. Much of the machinations in the in and out showdown with Elections Canada over campaign spending and accounting involved the financing of expensive US-style TV attack ads. These ads have been calculated to exploit the anti-intellectual prejudices of some Canadians in an era when the Liberal Party of Canada embraced the professorial styles of Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, and now Bob Rae.
Would we have seen US-style attack ads directed at the Governor-General if Michaelle Jean had been strong enough to hold the embattled constitutional ground beneath the Crown of Canada by allowing the political dynamic of the federal election of 2008 to run its proper course in the House of Commons. If not, we would certainly have seen the Governor-General, a regal embodiment of Chretien-style liberalism, pilloried in the press, but especially in The National Post, a venue that follows the Fox News agenda in efforts to push political discourse towards the right-wing extremes of politics where Steven Harper seems to be most at home.
Attack ads: A speciality of the Conservative Party of Canada
The heritage of Canada’s unwritten constitution inherited from the imperial Mother Country runs heavily against the propensity of the Harper Conservatives to integrate their tactics of electioneering with the political culture of the republic to the south. The result is growing uncertainty about the respective roles of the Governor-General and Her Majesty’s prime minister in calling elections, avoiding elections, suspending the operations of Parliament, and reconfiguring party associations with the goal of winning majority support in the voting that takes place inside the Canadian House of Commons.
While it would be beyond the mandate of a Royal Commission on electoral practices to delve into all the controversies attending prorogation, so too must the deeper constitutional context of the crisis in parliamentary democracy be taken into consideration. The Royal Commission would have to address particularly the problems created by the Canadian prime minister’s repeated failure to adhere to parliament’s adoption in 2007 of the American example of fixed election dates. This law of fixed election dates has never been implemented or enforced. In both 2008 and 2011 the prime minister of Canada ignored the 2007 law by requesting the Governor-General to call federal elections at times deemed propitious to the actual or imagined realization of political advantage for the Conservative Party.
Many Unanswered Questions: On the Need to Bring Canada’s Electoral Law into the Era Of Micro-Niche Targeting of Political Messages
Technological transformation ranks highly among the new forces that are changing the landscape of electioneering in Canada and throughout the world. These forces of technological reconfiguration start with powerful computers programmed to collect and mine data for deployment in both mass communications and targeted communications.
The political mining of computer data in order to narrowcast targeted political messages to particular groups—groups such as those sent to nonexistent polling stations who were said by Elections Canada to be born primarily between 1947 and 1949— raises a host of complex issues suitable for study by a Royal Commission. This narrowcasting of communications aimed at precisely-circumscribed lists of voters typically weaves together various combinations of criteria including gender, religion, ethnicity, age, income, health and ideology as well as well as educational, vocational, and marital status.
A strange new breed of corporate entity contains much of the of the new technology and expertise that is making so-called “micro-niche targeting” a core strategy in both raising funds and winning elections for political parties and individual candidates. The legal twilight zone surrounding many of the companies starts with the unique legal personality of their clients, the political parties whose organizational networks lie at the core of the system of responsible government in Canada’s parliamentary democracy. Commenting in “The Data Game,” a CBC documentary first aired in November of 2007, Law Professor Michael Geist described “the gray zone” inhabited by political parties. He said, “The private sector law doesn’t clearly apply nor does the government privacy law. You get this gray zone where perhaps there are no protections.”[xxxiii]
The legal uncertainties surrounding political parties extends to the companies they hire to raise money for them as part of broader campaigns to help them win power. This realm of political entrepreneurship combines the attributes of for-profit commerce with what passes for charity work in the not-for-profit sector. Accordingly this political enterprise inhabits a particularly lucrative space where profit and philanthropy overlap. Should Canadian law treat companies that raise money for charities to help the disadvantaged the same as it treats companies that raise money to finance political parties? Should there be changes in tax laws as they pertain to those that derive private profit from public contributions to political parties? Are there loopholes that should be closed and firmed up in the tax regime surrounding the financing of Canadian elections?
How should the new genre of political enterprise be regulated? To what laws and standards should the new generation of high-tech political corporations and their officers be required to adhere? What is the current relationship and what is the appropriate relationship between institutions of public governance, whose purpose is supposedly to advance the public interest and the common good, and those engaged in data collecting and data mining for profit? What happens when the profit-seeking officers involved in the business of transforming political parties into governments claim the right to secrecy by invoking the privacy rights attending corporate proprietorships?
Does it happen that information derived from, for instance, police, hospitals, news gathering venues, schools, insurance companies, private investigators, Facebook, and old census files, to mention only a few of the possibilities, is collected for political purposes unbeknownst to those being so profiled. What happens when such data is injected into computers and mined in ways that provide political advantage for political parties? Should Canadian citizens be at least informed about the political data being kept on them? Should they have the capacity to give or withhold permission on what can be collected and what can’t?
To what extent is Elections Canada or some other government agency or agencies already monitoring and regulating this kind of activity? What should the rules be and who should enforce them? What rules, if any, should govern the robotic gathering of particular veins of data derived from millions of web sites for potential deployment in electioneering?
A Royal Commission could be instrumental in helping to lay out the nature of the issues before Canadians and the options available to us in navigating the new landscapes of electioneering in this era of pervasive digitalization in the interactive computation of information. Such a Royal Commission could help provide the interpretive frameworks and the necessary language to help citizens and their political representatives assess the potential for crimes against democracy that are likely to occur when changes in technology are exploited in ways that further the empowerment of the powerful at the expense of the disempowered.[xxxiv]
The implications are enormous of the shift in the job of political organizing before and after the integration of computer modeling into electioneering. Before the change political parties had to work hard on the ground to develop and extend real political bases that conformed to the actual configurations of human community. These days political organizing is more likely to start with the development of computer models programmed to identify the landscape of virtual constituencies. Virtual constituencies can then be ushered into something approaching actuality through the narrowcasting of political messages specifically targeted to reach the intended lists of voters by Internet, direct mail, or telephone messages.
Should Canadian law permit political parties to contract out the pivotal work of first identifying and then transforming virtual political constituencies into real political constituencies? What, if any, should be the safeguards against conflict of interest in an environment so fraught with opportunities for collusion between business and government, between ambitious politicians and techno-hucksters on the make?
The questions requiring attention go on and on. Who, for instance, should own the form of political information that apparently made it possible for the Conservative Party to identify Canadians who were born between 1947 and 1949 and not likely to vote Conservative? What rules of privacy, if any, should apply to the work of companies whose business it is to collect, organize, mine and sell data that outlines in great detail the personal attributes of the full spectrum of individuals who together compose the Canadian electorate? What sorts of accounting to public officials should be required of those who sell sensitive information services to individual politicians, to political parties and to national governments?
Who should be accountable to whom in performing actions that sometimes make the highest officials in the land beholden to those that control some of the most sensitive and instrumental archives of political intelligence? Questions such as these cannot be avoided indefinitely by officials whose responsibility it is to make sure that Canadians can exercise their franchise in fair elections free of anti-democratic machinations such as disenfranchisement of targeted groups through suppression of their votes.
The creation of a Royal Commission could help create the base of broad consultation, deep investigation, thorough research, and wide dissemination of published findings and recommendations to form the base for informed discussion on what must be done to improve the legal and institutional framework of electioneering in Canada. This informed discussion must form the prelude to any significant alterations in the existing system.
The Slide into Electoral Scandal
The Royal Commission should be directed to situate its study on electioneering in Canada in a temporal framework that includes the final years of Liberal Party rule. This period gave rise to an array of relevant controversies including the so-called Sponsorship Scandal involving the hiring of advertising and PR companies to advance the electoral fortunes of the federal Liberal Party primarily in Quebec. The intensity and depth of the issues raised led the government of the day to institute a Royal Commission on the Sponsorship Scandal. Judge John Gomery led this judicial inquiry between 2004 and 2006 in ways that contributed significantly to the transformation of Canada’s political culture.
The history of the relationship between elections and policing entered a strange new phase during the campaign leading to the election of January of 2006. Giuliano Zaccardelli, the Commissioner in charge of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, inexplicably chose to intervene in the politics of the campaign through a letter he wrote to NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis. This letter mischievously announced the federal police force’s criminal investigation into the activities of the Liberal Party’s Finance Minister for allegedly leaking information on tax policy prior to tabling the federal budget.
No charges were ultimately laid. But both the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party predictably made much political hay of the RCMP’s apparent bid to help prod Canadian voters to move from Liberal to Conservative leadership of the federal government.[xxxv] What, if anything, should be done to prevent future instances of this kind of intervention where police charge into political contests with purposeful or inadvertent impact on the outcome of elections? What must be done to depoliticize the functioning of police forces more generally? At what point, if any, should the infraction of electoral law become the business of the criminal justice system?
The RCMP became ensnared in the longstanding conflict between Elections Canada and the Conservative Party revolving around competing interpretations of the so-called “in and out scandal.” In April of 2008 the RCMP conducted a forced search of the Conservative Party headquarters in the quest for records that might provide evidence in charges being mounted against the Harper Conservatives by Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer.
In 2008 the saga of antagonism between Elections Canada and the Harper Conservatives was already well advanced. When reporting to the press on its forced entry into the Conservative Party headquarters, the RCMP made it clear that its officers were not pursuing the federal police force’s own investigation. They were acting rather on a court order to advance the investigations conducted in the name of Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand.[xxxvi] Is it even thinkable that the RCMP would lead the charge on the Harper Conservatives when the Mounties intervened politically to help point the Harper Conservatives towards the responsibilities of government in the election of 2006?
The police raids on the Conservative Party were part of a process resulting in charges being laid in February of 2011 against the Conservative Party of Canada, its financial arm the Conservative Fund Canada, and four high-ranking Conservative Party officials, two of whom were then senators. Those charged were Senator Irving Gerstein, who was the Conservative Party’s chief fundraiser, Michael Donison, the Party’s former national party director, Susan Kehoe, a former interim executive director, and Senator Doug Finley, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign director in the elections of 2006 and 2008.[xxxvii]
The charges came in response to a ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal in December of 2010. This civil case began with the decision of the Conservative Fund Canada to sue the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Marc Mayrand. In his description of the ruling Mayrand provides an introduction to the technicalities underlying the larger questions of principle at play in this historic dispute over election spending.
The strategic importance of jurisprudence on campaign financing was highlighted in 2010 in the United States by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case of Citizens United versus the Federal Elections Commission. The effect of this most consequential decision was to produce the result sought by Stephen Harper when he initiated the case of Harper vs. Canada in 2000 as president of the National Citizens Coalition. The ruling by the US Supreme Court gave a green light to unlimited spending by corporations and other so-called third parties in American elections.
On the judicial response in Canada to the case of the Conservative Fund Canada versus the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, a test of the provisions designed to maintain some sort of equity in campaign financing between competing political parties, Mayrand writes,
The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the Chief Electoral Officer’s position that the Goods and Services tax rebates pursuant to the Excise Tax Act do not affect the value of election expenses under the Canadian Elections Act, whether for the purpose of spending limits or the reimbursement of expenses. [xxxviii]
By 2011, therefore, the litigation concerning alleged wrongdoing in the election of 2006 pointed both ways. The Conservative Party was attempting to sue Elections Canada and Elections Canada was pressing charges on those deemed most responsible for alleged violations of law in the in and out scandal. Then in November of 2011 two white flags were raised in the form of a plea bargain. Then in early March of 2012, just as the robocon scandal was gaining traction with the public, there was a further move away from the litigious crossing of swords. In the November deal the Conservative Party and its finance arm, the Conservative Fund Canada, agreed to plead guilty to charges that accounting and spending infractions had taken place. The two political entities paid a fine of $52,000. In return, charges were dropped by Elections Canada against Conservative operatives Gerstein, Finley, Donison, and Kehoe.
The effect of this plea bargaining was to keep sensitive evidence from being made public in court. In preparing for some sort of ultimate litigious showdown with Elections Canada the Conservative Party had sought and won a leave to appeal the whole matter to the Supreme Court of Canada. This reservation of time for a hearing before Canada’s top judges serves to mark the high importance of the issues driving the dispute between the Harper Conservatives and Elections Canada. The first Supreme Court hearing was to have taken place on May 14. Fred DeLorey, the Conservative Party spokesperson in charge of stick handling the public communications on this sensitive file, explained to reporters on March 6 that “We are agreeing to disagree and will be dropping our appeal to the Supreme Court.[xxxix]
On the Genesis of the Ongoing Disputes Between Elections Canada and the Conservative Party
The Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada would have to look especially closely at the rules governing Elections Canada and the way those rules have been applied or not in the real world of electioneering. As Preston Manning recently suggested, the investigators would have to look at the successes and failures in enforcing Canada’s election laws on all political parties. It would have to look at the relationship between the regulators and the police, but especially the federal police, in achieving these objectives.
As far as Elections Canada goes, its efforts to enforce Canadian election law have fallen disproportionately on the ruling Conservatives. Why? Is the Conservative Party more prone to violate electoral laws than the other political parties or is Elections Canada prone to bias in enforcing election law? As it currently stands it is only a mild exaggeration to describe the background of the current relationship between the chief operatives of the Conservative Party and Elections Canada as one of low-level warfare.
The acrimony goes back to at least 2001 when Stephen Harper was president of the National Citizens Coalition, an organization set up to lobby for an agenda of lower taxation, expanded privatization, and maximum deregulation of business. In this capacity Harper mounted a constitutional challenge to those provisions of the Canada Elections Act (2000) that limited funding by third parties on campaign advertising. During this same period Harper began a fund-raising letter by alleging “the jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control.”
In his letter of condemnation Harper went on to attack an effort by Elections Canada to prohibit social networking media on the Internet from publishing information on electoral results in eastern Canada before the polls were closed in western Canada. As one of Harper’s assistants described it, the conflict between the future prime minister and Elections Canada was a “blood feud.” It was for Harper a “never ending” struggle against what Harper’s associate described as the very “epitome of bureaucratic evil.”[xl]
A Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada could assess the full spectrum of forces really at play in the series of disputes involving Elections Canada and the Conservative Party. How independent is Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada? How is his capacity to address the robocon scandal affected by his prior involvement as a major protagonist in the in and out scandal on electoral accounting? Is it fair, pragmatic, and wise to put the full weight of responsibility on Elections Canada to deal with this new round of controversy while the old controversies going back to the federal election of 2006 continue to fester, replicate and spread? Why should Canadians put so much confidence in Marc Mayrand, an accountant whose background and technical expertise lie in bankruptcy cases?
Hasn’t the time arrived to bring in talent from outside the circle of acrimony that has seized the officials of Elections Canada and the Conservative Party in its grip for a number of years? Don’t we Canadians deserve an infusion of fresh perspectives from outside investigators unburdened by all the baggage weighing down Marc Mayrand and his staff? Is Mayrand capable of stepping back from details to see the larger outlines and meanings of what Peter Russell has described as “parliamentary democracy in crisis”?[xli] Some would say no. Some would say that Mayrand’s agenda for Elections Canada does not seem responsive to the growing crisis of confidence in our political institutions. In a recent report to Parliament Mayrand declared that his agency’s top priority is “to reduce the regulatory burden on political entities.”[xlii]
How can Elections Canada credibly combine the roles of persecutor and arbiter when alleged electoral infractions are processed? Might a Royal Commission use its powers of subpoena to bring out the suppressed evidence that never made it to court because of a plea bargain in November of 2011 between Elections Canada, the Conservative Party, the Conservative Fund, and the four Conservative operatives charged with violating electoral laws? On whose behalf was Elections Canada acting when its officers agreed to the plea bargain in November of 2011?
Police raid Conservative Party headquarters in 2008 to seek evidence of spending and accounting infractions in the In and Out Scandal
Did Elections Canada attempt any consultation with the public or at least with the leadership of the opposition parties in the House of Commons before cutting a deal with the Harper Conservatives? What does it mean that the Conservative Party and Conservative Fund pled guilty to some of the charges that these political entities had violated Canadian electoral law? Doesn’t this admitted breach of the law suggest so-called political entities should be subject to more regulation—better regulation– not less regulation as advocated by Mayrand? Why should Canadians look to Elections Canada to sort out the robocon scandal when the Chief Electoral Officer in Canada is just emerging from such a secretive and unsatisfactory deal that leaves completely unresolved very fundamental questions about who should bear legal responsibility when Canada’s electoral laws are violated.
A Royal Commission could help satisfy the Canadian public’s legitimate need and right to know how it is that the Conservative Party and its financial arm, the Conservative Fund, could accept guilt in violating electoral spending and accounting laws whereas the Conservative Party officers that ordered the wrongdoing could be exempted from legal responsibility for their actions. Doesn’t this negotiated settlement of a matter that touches so significantly on the rights and responsibilities of all Canadian citizens smack of cronyism between Ottawa insiders?
Jim Harris condemns many individuals and interests, but especially the mainstream media, for the failure to highlight the criminality entailed in the in and out scandal and for the failure to connect the long drawn out proceedings of Elections Canada to the robocon scandal. In the Huffington Post Harris writes,
In the end the Conservatives pled guilty and got a $52,000 fine.
There was no appropriate consequence for the Conservatives breaking Canada’s election law. The fine is a joke. The Conservatives spent $1.3 more than allowed to by law, “won” the election, and paid a penalty of $52,000. The reward: gaining access to the levers of power and deciding how to spend the Government of Canada’s $270.5 billion budget.
The case took five years to be resolved. By this time the Conservatives had been in power for five years and had appointed 48 Conservatives to the Senate.
The Conservatives strategy is clear: break the law, deny any wrong doing, frustrate and stall any investigation — whether by Elections Canada or House of Commons committee — and when the final decision is about to be rendered, plea bargain and pay a fine.[xliii]
The organization, Democracy Watch has referred to the “dangerously weak enforcement record” of Elections Canada.[xliv] Retired CBC producer Nick Filmore echoed this statement explaining, “Elections Canada has been soft on individuals and groups found guilty of violating voting laws. First, there was the disgraceful way it accepted the Conservative Party’s admission of guilt in the 2006 ‘in-and-out scandal’ in return for not pursuing criminal charges against the high-level operatives in Harper’s office.”[xlv]
Does the negotiated settlement do justice to the seriousness of the legal infractions that took place in the very heart of our electoral system? Does the settlement take the notion of limited liability of corporate entities too far away from the principle that those who direct and facilitate infractions of the law should be held accountable for their actions? Won’t this cynical settlement confirm in the minds of Canadians that different rules apply when the law is broken by those in the upper socio-economic strata of society, by police, and by those within the inner sanctums of the ruling political party? What is to be made of the current government’s priority of getting tough on crime when government officials such as the four individuals charged with wrongdoing in the in and out scandal seem to be granted forms of protection and impunity that effectively put them above the law.
Senator Finley’s current responsibilities include that of representing the Conservative Party of Canada in a transnational network of political allies promoting right-of-centre policies. Finley was appointed along with Tony Clement to leadership roles in the International Democratic Union. Chaired by Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard, the IDU is a working association of over 80 right-of-centre parties operating in over 60 countries.[xlvi]
As Robert Cleroux and others have reported, it appears the in out scandal may have been replicated in the election of 2011.[xlvii] The experience of Bertin Denis, a defeated Conservative candidate in the riding of Rimouski-Neigette-Temiscouata-Les Basques, is one of 18 similar cases in Quebec. Denis received a cheque for $55,000 from Conservative campaign headquarters. From this amount he had to submit a cheque for $15,000.01 to Responsive Marketing Group based in Toronto and Washington DC.[xlviii] This payment to RMG is part of a large flow of funds to a company that recently combined with the Calgary-based Xentel DM, an operation under many dark clouds of controversy that recently changed its name to iMarketing Solutions Group.
Inky Mark, Garth Turner, Michael Davis, RMG, and CIMS
In my view any Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada will have to look long and hard especially at Responsive Marketing Group, RMG, a company that has been deeply involved in many aspects of the rise of the Harper Conservatives to the status of Canada’s governing party in firm control of federal authority in Canada.
One of RMG’s key contributions to the success of the Conservative Party has come by way of its central role in building up the Conservative Party’s formidable consolidated political database. This database is known as CIMS, the Constituent Information Management System. An illustration of the kind of campaign targeting made possible by the CIMS system lie in the transactions that enabled the Conservative Party to hone in, according to Elections Canada, on non-Conservative voters born primarily between 1947 and 1949.[xlix] This example is but one among many millions of possible permutations and combinations that become possible with so-called micro-niche targeting.
Inky Mark, a former Conservative MP for the Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette riding in Winnipeg, has gone on record to describe the machinations of those in control of access to the data contained in the CIMS. “If they get mad at you and don’t want you to access your own data, you’re done,” Mark said. The popular former MP added, “I figured that out right off the bat and said I don’t want to be under their control, so I just quit basically.” Mark decided in 2010 not to run in the next federal election.
The Canadian Press reported. “Mark says every time he or his staff would meet a constituent and get their phone number, they were expected to log the information and any pertinent details, including the individual’s political leanings and personal interests. He says the party had control over the entire, nationwide database. An MP and his staff were at the mercy of headquarters, Mark says, because they had the power to allocate and revoke database passwords.”[l]
Garth Turner is another former Conservative MP who, like Inky Mark, is highly critical of the way his former party manipulates data, people, and money. Turner puts the CIMS system together with its creators, developers and custodians at RMG near the centre of his analysis. After leaving the Harper Conservatives Turner told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the CIMS system put the Conservatives “streets ahead of anyone else in the country on how they collect information and centralize the management of it.”[li]
As an example of how the CIMS system works, Turner in 2007 pointed to the CIMS as the key operational device that enabled the Conservative Party to send Jewish New Year cards in 2006 to many Jewish residents in Toronto.[lii] Much of Turner’s criticism of RMG and its founder and CEO, Michael Davis, concerns the proprietary dimensions the database that forms a key component of the Conservatives’ power base. Turner suggested that RMG might retain ownership over parts of the CIMS database. “Its part of [RMG’s] contract that they ‘own’ lists of names they assemble.”
Turner is paraphrased to have said, “RMG has strictly-enforced contracts that make these lists their property for their own use.” Turner continued, “The Conservatives have used their money and their connections with US Republicans to develop a wide lead over their competitors in the field of data mining and voter identification. They are unwilling to discuss whether they have crossed any ethical or legal lines in terms of privacy rights or data sources and are totally guarded about their data systems, and the people behind them.”
Turner devoted particular attention to the career of RMG’s CEO and founder, Michael Davis. Davis and RMG started the work of building up the future ruling party’s data management system in 2003 shortly after the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada amalgamated with Stephen Harper’s Alliance Party. Turner makes several references in his commentary on Davis and RMG to the Calgary-based Xentel DM Company. In 2010 Xentel DM would acquire RMG as a subsidiary. Xentel then changed its name to iMarketing Solutions Group. iMarketing’s CEO is Davis’ close associate, Michael Platz.
Turner is reported to have observed,
Davis formerly worked with fundraising consultant Craig Copland, the founder or co-founder of at least six Canadian charities that routinely spend 70 percent or more of contributions on telemarketers and other expenses, according to a recent Toronto Star investigation. These charities “exaggerate their good deeds, or outright refuse to say what they do with your money.” Copland works closely with the telemarketing corporation Xentel DM. “Copland finds Xentel new charity clients. Xentel pays him royalties for charities sent its way. He also served on Xentel’s board of directors until the Star started asking questions,” the paper reported. Davis’ RMG works in similar fashion.
“With RMG and Xentel, they’ll guarantee money, but in effect you turn over your charitable tax number to them,” says the consultant. “They can hide it in various ways.” He says, “Davis is smart. Three years ago he severed his connection with Copland,” who is now drawing public heat.
Davis is well known in the fund-raising profession for the work he has done for conservative causes. He has worked for anti-abortion and anti-gun control groups, and also the Ontario Conservative Party under Mike Harris, which got in trouble for reporting payments of more than half a million dollars to RMG for telephone canvassing as polling expenses….
RMG did membership work for the Tom Long campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party, which was later discredited for selling phony memberships.
The Toronto consultant [Garth Turner] believes RMG laid the foundation for the federal Conservatives’ voter contact machine. “I think RMG has a database of pretty well everyone in Canada that has any right-wing leanings. They raise a ton of money.”
In the 1980s, Davis was associated with a scandal concerning the Canadian Liver Foundation. He helped increase the charity’s earnings “from $2 million to $11 or 12 million,” recalls the consultant, “but it only netted [the charity] several thousand. RMG, which was then called something else, garnered all the money, and there was a big scandal. Subsequently they changed the name of the firm.”[liii]
The basis of Turner’s criticisms of Davis’ former colleague was confirmed and outlined in detail by the investigative work of The Toronto Star’s David Bruser. Bruser’s report on a “Charitable Empire” explained in 2007 how Xentel DM’s Craig Coupland founded or cofounded six health-related charities, including the Childhood Asthma Foundation. Coupland’s company would then “routinely spend 70 per cent or more of [the] contributions on telemarketers and other expenses.” Others peg the figure retained by RMG’s future parent company higher. Bruser writes, “Provincial and state regulators have criticized Xentel for misleading donors and sometimes keeping 80% to 90% of every dollar raised.”[liv]
In spite of the revelations by Turner and Bruser about the dubious techniques of Davis and Coupland in deriving large private profit from charitable donations, Preston Manning was perfectly clear in 2009 in lauding RMG for its central role in the transformation of Canada’s political culture. Mr. Manning is founder of the Alberta-based Reform Party. He is generally viewed as the founding patriarch of the Conservative Party of Canada in its present incarnation.
In April of 2009 Mr. Manning, founder of the Manning Institute for Building Democracies, presented RMG with the Manning Centre Pyramid Award for Political Technology. At the Annual Manning Networking Conference and Exhibition in Ottawa the son of a former Alberta premier honoured RMG as well as its founder and CEO, Michael Davis. Mr Manning described “RMG’s role in helping to build the conservative movement in Canada. RMG has raised more than $75 million for right of centre causes and helped to elect hundreds of right of centre politicians at the municipal, provincial and national levels.”[lv]
RMG, Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper
RMG’s deep integration into the political operations of the Harper Conservatives evolved from the company’s prior role in the management of political data for the Mike Harris government in Ontario. As leader of the province’s Progressive Conservative Party, Harris was premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002. The intermediary in the transfer of technology and expertise from the provincial to the national levels was Tom Flanagan, whom Ezra Levant credits as “the master strategist, the godfather, even of Harper.”[lvi] Some observers were less flattering when Tom Flanagan was featured in many news reports in late 2010. These reports drew attention to Flanagan’s attempt to be funny by proposing that Wikileaks impresario, Julian Assange, be assassinated.[lvii]
In his published reflections on his own various involvements in the rise of right-wing conservatism to governing authority in Canada Flanagan explains, “Our relationship with RMG linked nicely with our development of CIMS. RMG was already familiar with a CIMS-style system because of the work they had done with the Ontario PCs, and CIMS provided a receptacle for the hundreds of thousands of records generated by RMG’s large-scale calling programs.”[lviii]
Tom Flanagan has worked as a professor of political science at the University of Calgary since 1968. He has been involved at many stages and in many ways in the transformation of Preston Manning’s Alberta-based Reform Party into Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. In the process Flanagan became the core figure in the so-called Calgary School whose most famous alumnus is the current Prime Minister of Canada. Flanagan’s role in the project of pushing politics in Canada to the right has tended to be mercurial, as old alliances break down and new collaborations fill their place. Flanagan is presently engaged in pushing the politics of the provincial government of Alberta rightward by assisting the electioneering of the newly-created Wild Rose Party.
During their periods of maximum collaboration Harper and Flanagan have been described as “intellectual soul mates, philosophical soul mates.” A darker view of the relationship has pictured Flanagan as “a modern-day Rasputin manipulating a leader 16 years his junior.”[lix]Together Harper and Flanagan have co-authored a number of essays. In 2004 Marci MacDonald wrote a very rich account of Flanagan entitled “The Man Behind Stephen Harper.” In that essay MacDonald advanced the thesis that much of the output of Harper and Flanagan and the other participants in the Calgary School has been directed at “wiping out the quirky bilateral differences that are stumbling blocks to [Canada’s] seamless integration into the United States.”[lx]
This theme of political integration along north-south axes of interaction in North America helps set the context of Flanagan’s seminal collaboration beginning in 2003 with RMG’s Michael Davis. It was Davis who was able to bring Flanagan along in updating work he had started in graduate schools “as a political technologist eager to learn the mechanics of gaining power.”[lxi]
Flanagan grew up close to Chicago Illinois in a prosperous family where the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican Party were revered as dual points of institutional authority. Flanagan enrolled at Notre Dame University in Indiana and subsequently did his Ph.D. at Duke University and the Free University of Berlin. In 1968, two years before his doctoral thesis was complete, the young conservative was recruited to join the brand new political science department in the brand new University of Calgary.
Flanagan was hand picked for the job by the first Chair of the Political Science Department, Colonel E. Burke Inlow. Prof. Inlow’s prior posting was as an intelligence officer at the Pentagon in Washington DC with special expertise in the history and politics of Iran and other oil-rich polities throughout the Middle East. The hiring patterns initiated by Inlow created a momentum that would make the Calgary School a key centre for the importation into Canada of the most right-wing expressions US political culture.
Given the strategic importance to the United States of an oil-rich province that by the early 1950s was already being referred to as “Texas North,” it is hardly surprising that some of the roots of the Calgary School lead back to the Pentagon and other components of the national security apparatus of the republic to the south. A city whose political economy is dominated by the corporate satellites of many US-based oil and gas enterprises, Calgary currently hosts 80,000 to 100, 000 US citizens giving it the highest percentage of Americans in any city outside the United States.[lxii] In 1968 Tom Flanagan joined many other ambitious young Americans in the growing stream of migration from the republic in the south to the constitutional monarchy north of the border that Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine peoples still sometimes describe as the medicine line.
As part of his work strategizing with Preston Manning, Stephen Harper, Michael Davis and others on the project of moving the exercise of political power in Canada to the right, Tom Flanagan developed a specialty in the history of government-Aboriginal relations in Canada. Flanagan worked up this specialty to the point where he has been repeatedly hired by the federal Justice Department as an expert witness for the federal Crown in adversarial litigation where the legal meaning of section 35 has been tested. Again and again both federal and provincial government have placed themselves in opposition to Aboriginal litigants. This record of litigious antagonism is especially problematic for the purchasers of Flanagan’s services. In case after case the federal government has deployed the full resources of the state to deny and negate rather than recognize and affirm the existence of Aboriginal and treaty rights.[lxiii]
Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 proclaims that “The existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” What should Canadian citizens make of this constitutional requirement to recognize and affirm the existence of Aboriginal and treaty rights when they have before them the example of a federal Justice Department that in the adversarial theatre of the courts consistently advances interpretations of section 35 whose effect is to minimize obligations adhering to the Crown or any other non-Aboriginal person or entity?
If even Her Majesty’s own ministers, advisors, and experts fail to uphold the honour of the Crown by consistently denying and negating those Aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in the Canadian constitution, why should regular citizens honour the finer spirit and intent of section 35? At the very least the record of consistent federal opposition to broad interpretations of Aboriginal and treaty rights in court represents a systemic violation of the federal government’s fiduciary obligations to First Nations.
As a perennial expert witness for the federal Crown, Tom Flanagan has consistently worked to narrow judicial definitions of section 35 as much as possible. In this fashion Tom Flanagan has brought the Indian-fighting ethos of the American frontier to the juridical frontiers of Canadian Indian policy. Again and again Flanagan has been paid handsomely by federal authorities to deny and negate a tradition of Crown-Aboriginal treaty alliances that draws in large measure on the Indian policies of Sir William Johnson whose principles of Crown treatment of First Nations was constitutionally codified in the Royal Proclamation of 1763?
Recognized in section 25 of the Constitution Act, 1982, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established western borders for the Thirteen Anglo-American Colonies. The Royal Proclamation also established the Crown’s requirement to obtain Indian consent for the future transfer of lands from Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal jurisdiction and proprietorship. In Canada the Royal Proclamation has been implemented at intervals, most recently in establishing the constitutional basis for the negotiations presently underway in British Columbia of about 50 Crown-Aboriginal treaties.[lxiv]
This anti-Aboriginal entrepreneurship from a mentor, co-author, and campaign manager of Stephen Harpers is consistent with the enterprise of other academic members of the Calgary School. According to a critic, two of Flanagan’s colleagues in the U of C Political Science Department, Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton, “have built careers, and a brisk consulting businesses, taking shots at the Charter of Rights, above all its implications for the pet peeves of social conservatives: feminism, abortion, and same-sex marriage.”[lxv]
Those officials responsible for formulating federal positions on section 35 in the adversarial environment of court have repeatedly acted on the dubious assumption that the public interest of the Canadian people is best served by putting forward arguments that deny and negate the existence of Aboriginal and treaty rights. They have paid many millions of dollars to hired guns like Flanagan and Alexander von Gernet to help counter the case that the collective rights, titles, and treaty relations of Aboriginal peoples with the Crown guarantee them a strong place and voice in Canadian federalism. In this fashion one of the Conservative Party’s primary political operatives, at least in its early years, received federal payments amounting to at least several hundreds of thousand of dollars to attack the heritage of constitutional law rooted in the Indian policies of Sir William Johnson. In my books Johnson features as one of the originating bright lights of the Red Tory tradition of indigenous conservatism in Canada.[lxvi]
“Our Benign Dictatorship “ ranks highly among the most well received and widely disseminated of the essays co-authored by Flanagan and Stephen Harper. Published in the winter of 1997, the essay lays out a rather insightful and lively history analyzing many of the political communities that combine to form the diverse makeup of Canada’s political culture. The methodology of the paper presents an illustration of the kind of categories and subject areas that could well be applied to the development of computer models employed to organize information on citizens in ways that would apportion virtual Canadians among many different types of digitally-formed political community.
Flanagan’s and Harper’s primary goal in the essay is to present a plan for “Forestalling a Second Liberal Century.” From their perspective in the final years of the twentieth century the key to the eventual defeat of the Liberal Party as Canada was to bring about an amalgamation of the more right-wing, Western-based and populist Reform Party with the more centrist Progressive Conservative Party. The authors predicted, “If the Reform and the Progressive Conservatives continue their war of attrition they’ll keep each other in check for a long time… The Liberals will continue to govern, even if an NDP were to cut into their majority.”
Flanagan and Harper proclaimed that “conservative voters do not have to be content with Toryism.” The authors saw the “the Red Tory line of reasoning” as especially “fragile” and as an obstacle to defeating the Liberals. In their own words, “The central question for Canadian conservatives is this: Can Canada ever have a version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon… a definite and consistent conservative philosophy, and able to govern.”[lxvii]
Part of the effort to duplicate in Canada the institutional and media framework that made Reagan’s message of small government, deregulation, and privatization so effective was the proliferation of right-wing Think Tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute. This strategy for politically-directed research and communication was replicated in Canada through efforts to build up and heighten the profile of, for instance, the Fraser Institute, the Canada West Foundation, and the C.D. Howe Institute. Meanwhile much of the behind-the-scenes strategizing took place in and around an entity known as Civitas. This trajectory of right-wing activity in the conduct of goal-oriented gathering and dissemination of information would later find an extension in the data collection and data mining techniques that would make the Conservative Party’s CIMS system so formidable.
As the activists in the Calgary School could plainly see, one of the keys to pushing politics rightward and to incorporating Canada into more Reaganesque models of North American conservatism was to absorb and eliminate the indigenous Progressive Conservative Party. The Harper Conservatives achieved this goal in late 2003 but in order to do so they had to contravene a very explicit legal contract signed by the PC leader Peter MacKay.
The contract had been signed in the hours before Peter MacKay became leader of the PC Party at a national convention. Red Tory activist David Orchard threw the support of his block of delegates to MacKay on the condition that the recipient of this backing sign a contract making several promises. The first and foremost of Kay’s signed promises was to block any attempt to bring about a merger joining the Progressive Conservatives to Stephen Harper’s Alliance Party. This condition flowed naturally from the determination of Orchard and the so-called Orchardistas to defend Canadian sovereignty from US subversion. Having thus secured the backing to put him over the top in terms of delegate support, MacKay emerged from the convention as the inheritor of the party of John A. Macdonald and Joe Clark.[lxviii]
A few months later MacKay presided over the termination of the PC Party in direct violation of his contract with David Orchard. MacKay endorsed the merger of the PCs with Harper’s Alliance Party, the successor to Preston Manning’s Reform Party. David Orchard, who had twice come second in successive runs to lead the PC Party, was rightly dismayed by the bare-faced dishonesty of MacKay and those with whom he chose to side in this high-stakes situation.
Orchard described the new political entity that dropped the word “progressive” from its name as a “party conceived in betrayal and born of deception.”[lxix] This characterization of the attack on a tradition of indigenous Canadian conservatism that goes back at least to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 would cast David Orchard in the role of a modern-day Sir William Johnson. It would put Peter MacKay along with the likes of Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan in the role of Daniel Boone pushing beyond the frontiers of the rule of law, beyond the Royal Proclamation line, to colonize new territories for North America’s most acquisitive trajectory of right-wing aggrandizement.
Orchard’s view of the Conservative Party’s founding in 2003 helps, perhaps, to shed light on larger patterns of conduct entailed in the deceptiveness of voter suppression and the betrayal of Canadians through purposeful efforts to evade and subvert electoral laws.
RackNine, Front Porch Strategies, the Republican Party, RMG, Annette Degagné and the Other T Bay Whistle Blowers
There are many lines of investigation to be followed in getting to the bottom of the robocon scandal, a controversy that started as numerous reports of alleged wrongdoing began to surface immediately following the federal election of May 2, 2011.[lxx] One of these lines of inquiry has already led to an Edmonton-based company called RackNine. This business has been shown to lie near the still-unrevealed source in the chain of robocall intrigue that so far is traceable to the now-iconographic electoral trickster, Pierre Poutine of Separatist Street in Joliette Quebec.[lxxi]
Another connection to the scandal runs through Front Porch Strategies of Columbus Ohio, a company that advertises, “Our passion is helping Republican candidates, elected officials, and conservative causes win by personally connecting them with voters and constituents.”[lxxii] Front Porch Strategies was hired to work on the campaigns of 14 Conservative Party candidates including that of Peterborough MP, Dean Del Mastro. Del Mastro currently works as parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Del Mastro has repeatedly ended up with egg on his face in efforts to defend the government in the House of Commons by, for instance, accusing his opponents of using US-based telemarketers when his own campaign was doing exactly that.
Another client of Front Porch Strategies was MP Julian Fantino, the former Toronto Police Chief and former Associate Minister of Defense. Fantino has also been described as the Minister in charge of the government’s planned purchase of C-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. Fantino’s campaign office formed the backdrop of a widely-published photo featuring Front Porch’s president, Mathew Park. Park was show busily working the telephones of the Fantino campaign as Front Porch personnel have previously done for, for example, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
As illustrated by the deals with Front Porch strategies, the Harper Conservatives are well known for their ability to integrate their electioneering techniques with those of the 79 other right-wing parties allied in the International Democratic Union. All these political entities take their direction one way or another from the US Republican Party whose leadership often works in lockstep with the Likud Party of Israel. Likud is a very active IDU member.
As quoted by The Toronto Star’s Linda Diebel, an unnamed Liberal strategist commented on the worldwide political networking of the Harper Conservatives. He or she is reported to have said, “There has been a global revolution that has transformed every aspect of politics in the last five years. The Conservatives know how to take technologies from other parties in other countries — ‘offshoring’ — and they do it better than anybody else. The problem is I don’t think Elections Canada can keep up.”[lxxiii]
There are many strands of intertwined interactions, therefore, that deserve the attention of a Royal Commission. For me, however, there is one site that stands above all others as being the most deserving of careful scrutiny at this preliminary stage in the robocon investigation. The imperatives of this investigation demand that I return the narrative to the activities of Michael Davis and Responsive Marketing Group.
Recall that in 2009 Davis and RMG were selected to receive the Manning Centre Pyramid Award for Political Technology. The award was given to honour the leading role of Davis and RMG in developing the Conservative Party’s formidable CIMS system. Is the CIMS system developed by RMG in any way connected to the crime of voter suppression alleged by Annette Degagné? Ms. Degagné and other RGM operators in RMG’s Thunder Bay call centre made the allegations to Elections Canada and the RCMP. Degagné also made sure her SOS went up the chain of command of RMG and its overseers in the Conservative Party. According to one of the whistle blowers, enough of a fuss was made so that the whole staff of the T Bay call centre knew what was happening.[lxxiv]
The core offices of RMG are in Toronto and Washington. Currently RMG’s Canadian call centres are in St. John’s Newfoundland, Miramichi New Brunswick, Gatineau Quebec, and Thunder Bay Ontario. Three informants in RMG’s Thunder Bay call centre told The Toronto Star’s Tonda MacCharles that they themselves read prepared scripts in live telephone calls to assigned lists of voters on election day. The informants said that the Conservative-directed, Conservative-financed calls were delivered in the name of Elections Canada. But that was just the beginning of the alleged lies.
Included in the messages to the recipients were the addresses of polling stations. In the course of making these calls those delivering the scripted messages realized there were consistent problems when they read out the locations of the polling stations. The RMG employees gradually realized that the locations were bogus as they had to contend with recurring complaints from the targeted recipients of the disinformation. How can the scene of this alleged cybercrime be described? Is Thunder Bay the site of the alleged crime? Or is the T Bay call centre just a window into a transnational enterprise of data collection and data mining whose owners and operators can make or break the governments of sovereign countries?
To me Annette Degagné is real Canadian hero for responding to her own involvement in an alleged crime as she did and then telling her story publicly while allowing Toronto Star reporter Tonda MacCharles to use her real name. In this fashion Degagné has taken full responsibility for her damning testimony. MacCharles relates the incident as follows:
Callers on behalf of the federal Conservative Party were instructed in the days before last year’s election to read scripts telling voters that Elections Canada had changed their voting locations, say telephone operators who worked for a Thunder Bay-based call centre.
These weren’t “robocalls” as automated pre-recorded voice messages are commonly known. They were live real-time calls made into ridings across Canada, the callers say.
In a new twist on new growing allegations of political “dirty tricks,” three former employees of RMG — Responsive Marketing Group call centre in Thunder Bay — told the Star about the scripts….
However, one employee was so concerned that something was amiss she says she reported it to her supervisor at the RMG site, to the RCMP office in Thunder Bay and to a toll-free Elections Canada number at the time.
Annette Desgagné, 46, said it became clear to her — after so many people complained that the “new” voting locations made no sense or were “way the hell across town” — that the live operators were, in fact, misdirecting voters.
“We’re sending people to the wrong place,” Desgagné recalled telling her supervisor.
She said she has no way of knowing whether in fact the poll station locations she gave listeners were wrong addresses or phony locations. But she said the “feedback” elicited by the script was so negative, “we started getting antsy.”
She said she and a few other workers at the call centre were perplexed enough that they began telling the voters they should double-check their poll location with their local Elections Canada office, which was not part of the script.
Desgagné, alone, said some workers shortened their script — although they weren’t supposed to — and said “… I’m calling from Elections Canada …”
Desgagné’s recollection of the job was largely corroborated by two other women contacted Sunday by the Star. Neither wanted to be named. All worked at RMG throughout the 2011 campaign on Conservative Party voter identification and on get-out-the-vote calls.
The Conservative Party of Canada, in response to Star queries Sunday, did not deny its calls may have misdirected voters but portrayed these as inadvertent mistakes. [lxxv]
A reporter for The National Post, Allison Cross, also spoke to individuals who had worked at the RGM call centre in Thunder Bay on the Conservative Party campaign. Cross’s report corroborates that of MacCharles. Cross wrote,
Staff at a Thunder Bay call centre tasked with making scripted calls claiming to be on behalf of the Conservative Party about voting locations during the 2011 federal election knew they were giving out incorrect information, say former employees.
“We would call these (voters) and they would say ‘we went there and that’s not a real place,’” said a woman, who worked for Responsive Marketing Group Inc. as a call operator, and asked not to be named.
“The whole call centre (noticed it was happening).”
“We called the RCMP,” she said. “We actually also told our supervisor about it.”
But no action was taken at the call centre and employees were told to stick to the script, the woman said.[lxxvi]
Degagné’s account, which is entirely consistent with Allison Cross’s report, is unequivocal. To me it is the closest thing I have seen to a smoking gun in this saga of electoral politics gone terribly wrong. Its “on a scale I’ve never seen before” admitted Ian Brody, Stephen Harper’s former chief-of-staff.[lxxvii] This whistle blower Degagné informed her supervisor so the company could not subsequently claim its chain of command was unaware of the allegations made by its own employee. Moreover Degagné passed her allegation onto Elections Canada and to the RCMP. Under the Canada Elections Act, the crime of voter suppression is easily encompassed by the prohibition on “delaying or obstructing the electoral process” or “the willful endeavour to prevent an elector from voting.” This infraction of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or five years in prison or both.[lxxviii]
The fact that the Thunder Bay detachment of the RCMP did nothing in response to the allegations made by Degagné and the other call centre operators who passed on their accusations only adds to the mounting evidence that something is drastically wrong with the leadership of the federal police force. The Mounties, it seems, have again and again shown themselves to be so thoroughly politicized and so preoccupied at times in covering up evidence of their own forays into the dark side of the law that they presently retain little credibility as a genuine agency of disinterested law enforcement. The Mounties have allowed themselves to become the political enforcers of their government paymasters.
Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher reported that the Conservative Party immediately went into damage control mode after the reports surfaced of whistle blowing by RMG’s Thunder Bay operators. The two journalists who co-wrote some of the seminal articles that broke open the robocall scandal detailed that “the Conservative Party is reviewing tapes of every call made by the RMG before Elections Canada investigators arrive [in Thunder Bay] next week.[lxxix] The Toronto Star story emphasized the discrepancy between conflicting accounts of the Conservative Party’s response to Election Canada’s decision to send to Thunder Bay Ronald Lamothe, the lead investigator on the in and out scandal. The Star reported, “As Lamothe heads to Thunder Bay to interview former RMG call centre workers, Conservative party officials have undertaken a massive project to review audio recordings of every call made by RMG staff on the party’s behalf in the last campaign, a source said. A spokesperson for the Conservative party denied that a review of the calls was taking place.”[lxxx]
The reference to the timing together with the official denial raises a number of significant questions. It would not be completely irrational, for instance, to wonder whether or not the real intention of the alleged Conservative Party review of the recorded RMG telephone calls was to destroy evidence; to beat Elections Canada to the damning recorded information?
Meanwhile RMG moved aggressively to stifle further revelations. It threatened its employees with legal action, stating publicly, “Given the nature of RMG’s work — and the private and confidential nature of the information we collect on behalf of our clients, all employees are required to sign confidentiality agreements. This has always been the case at RMG, as we give our clients an undertaking that all information collected on their behalf will not be shared or otherwise disclosed.”
RMG repeated this get-tough approach in its dealings with the press, or at least that part of the press owned by Postmedia Network. As Maher and McGregor reported, “RMG has sent legal letters to The National Post and the Internet news aggregator National Newswatch, over a story RMG believes was defamatory. It also requested corrections from the Vancouver Sun and Calgary Herald for coverage of a Canadian Press story, and sent a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, complaining about the coverage.”[lxxxi] Interestingly the report of RMG’s attempt to freeze the story by sending around menacing lawyers’ letters made no mention of The Toronto Star.
RMG’s legal and PR advisers are probably wise to counsel their client not to call attention to Tonda MacCharles’ stellar work in fleshing out the human story of the RMG operators at the Thunder Bay call centre. What protections, if any, are Elections Canada or some other agency providing for the T Bay whistle blowers from possible recriminations that might emanate from RMG, from the RCMP, from the Conservative Party, from the government of Canada, or from some combination of interests seeking to put a lid on the operators’ explosive evidence? A lot depends on the testimony under oath of the T Bay whistle blowers, defenders of peace, order, and good government in Canada.
Not surprisingly Postmedia’s Network’s The National Post, the flagship of the media conglomerate started by Conrad Black and subsequently owned and operated by the Winnipeg-based family of Izzy Asper, bent quickly to the pressure. After all, The National Post was founded as a right-wing Fox-style venue that in a sense invented and then popularized the political movement led by Stephen Harper. The media venue has consistently served as a cheerleader for the preemption of indigenous Canadian conservatism by Republican Party-style conservatism imported from the United States.
In a statement of retraction and apology The National Post declared that its article published “on March 2, 2012, referred to Responsive Marketing Group Inc. and stated that former employees of RMG have alleged that they were asked by RMG to direct voters to the wrong polling stations. That report was incorrect. No allegation has been made that RMG asked its employees to direct voters to the wrong polling stations. The National Postapologizes to Responsive Marketing Group Inc. for the error.”[lxxxii]
RMG’s threats to sue whistle blowers and some of the media venues that published their allegations has all the classic makings of a SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation. The effectiveness of this strategy is reflected in The National Post’s publishing of two contradictory accounts of the same story within a matter of days. This kind of backtracking in the face of intimidation begs the question of why Canadians should believe anything put out by a media conglomerate that will not stand behind the reporting of its own journalists when they publish material so consequential that it holds the potential to trigger proceedings that might send members of the ruling party to jail.
In his blog retired CBC producer Nick Filmore queries, “good investigative journalism could break this affair wide open, but will the owners of the Harper-friendly corporate media allow their journalists to go beyond normal reporting and do the hard work necessary to get to the very bottom of this dark story?” Filmore adds, “A few years ago The Globe and Mail would have led the way investigating this story. But since The Globe went upscale in 2009 to cater to a wealthier demographic under new owner David Thomson and Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse, investigative journalism has pretty well disappeared at the paper.”
While the reporting on the robocon scandal was vigorous and unrelenting in the final days of February and the early days of March, some powerful intervening forces seem to have stifled the truth-seeking zeal that briefly lit up the otherwise glum literary landscape of recent Canadian journalism. Perhaps RMG and Postmedia Network are not the only powerful interests putting checks in the way of how this story is allowed to be reported. Why is it, for instance, that Annette Degagné and the other T Bay call centre operators have slipped off the media radar screen so completely? Are they being intimidated into silence?
As Filmore sees it, all the ingredients are in place to break the story open if there was a genuine will on the part of those that control Canada’s most powerful media venues, including the CBC, to get to the bottom of what transpired. He writes,
It should not be too hard to get to the bottom of this affair. As many as 50 people – perhaps even 100 – have some idea of what took place. This includes owners and managers of three robo-calling/polling companies. There are the people who prepared the detailed information concerning who should be called, the many people who operated the systems, folks working in banks, and Conservative workers and volunteers in many ridings. Then there are telephone records, billing and receipt transactions, and bank trails that media may not get hold of, but that can be accessed by the RCMP and Elections Canada.[lxxxiii]
Jim Harris points to the seriousness of this apparent surge of electoral fraud in a contest where less than 7,000 votes apportioned among 14 ridings gave the Conservative Party its majority in the House of Commons. As Harris sees it, much of the reporting on the story has failed to explain to Canadians why the stakes are so high. Harris observes,
This isn’t a story about “dirty tricks,” it’s about election fraud. This isn’t “stupid,” it’s illegal. This isn’t “folly,” it was a deliberate, systematic, strategic, targeted campaign to steal the election. This isn’t “voter suppression,” it’s stealing democracy.
We should not treat this as some petty misdemeanor. This is a grave threat to our very basic freedom. This is a threat to our democracy. This is corruption.[lxxxiv]
When Companies Contaminate the Workings of Political Parties in Canada
Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor are generally credited with breaking the robocall story.[lxxxv] The obvious importance of their revelations led to comparisons being made between Maher and McGregor and Woodward and Bernstein who famously broke the Watergate story in the early 1970s. This comparison now needs to be reconsidered given that Maher and McGregor’s employer, Postmedia Network, seems to have succumbed to threats by reigning in its reporting on RMG and the work of RMG’s main Canadian client, the Conservative Party of Canada.
The ire felt by the Conservative Party’s operatives is reflected in the Maher’s report that he was involuntarily expelled on March 9 from the Manning Centre’s Ottawa event billed as a conservative family reunion. Among those invited to speak at the event were Senator Mike Duffy, Tom Flanagan, Peter MacKay, Michael Coren, Tom Long, and David Wilkins. Between 2005 and 2009 Wilkins was US Ambassador to Canada.[lxxxvi]
The National Post’s SLAPP-instigated retraction of its March 2 story adds significance to the story published by Maher and McGregor on March 1st. It is entitled “Connservative call centre company has checkered legal history in the U.S.. In this rich narrative the authors look at the integrated corporate operations of Michael Davis’ RMG and its US-based parent, Xental DM. In 2010 RMG merged with Xentel DM and subsequently changed the name of the later to iMarketing Solutions Group. [lxxxvii] This entity is headquartered in Calgary. Its stocks are traded in the Toronto Stock Exchange. The largest block of shareholders of the new company are reportedly RMG shareholders including RMG’s founder Michael Davis.
Maher and McGregor report,
Elections Canada records show RMG worked on 97 individual Conservative candidate campaigns in the last election, billing $1.4 million. The company is also believed to have worked on the Conservatives’ national campaign, but disclosure rules do not require the party to detail its suppliers.
Conservative sources say that the company does millions of dollars worth of business with the party every year, working with the Constituency Information Management System (CIMS), which tracks party supporters and opponents across the country.
Veteran Conservative organizer Doug Finley said Wednesday that he has confidence in RMG.”The Conservative Party has been extraordinarily careful to ensure we use the best in the business,” he said. “And the best in the business, in our view, is Responsive Marketing Group.”….
Corporate filings suggest the federal election was a bonanza for the firm, giving it “a significant year over year revenue increase in its political fundraising and direct voter contact activities.”
But the bump was balanced by what the firm politely called “increasing consumer resistance to telemarketing activities.” The company posted $24 million in revenues on the quarter ending June 2011, down slightly from the same period the year before. [lxxxviii]
Elsewhere Maher and McGregor write that the Conservative Party does about $10 to $15 million of business every year with RMG. Echoing Inky Marks characterization of the centralized workings of the CIMS system, Maher and McGregor explain that “the local campaign managers and candidates normally had no control over the work of RMG, even though they were receiving services from it for which they were billed, sources say.”[lxxxix]
Maher and McGregor go into considerable detail outlining many legal infractions of RGM’s parent company. In Tennessee, for instance, Xentel was fined $720,000 for legal violations in 144 individual cases. The company incurred other fines in Missouri. In Canada in 2010 the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission fined Xentel $500,000 “for misusing the charity exemption for the do-not-call list, calling people to solicit for organizations that were not registered as charities.”[xc]
One of the most serious accusations concerns allegations of fraud through the falsification of documents by the company’s officers. Maher and McGregor report,
Another former employee brought a suit against Xentel in 2003 alleging that she had been fired for complaining that company officials had misused a notary seal for legal documents and forged contracts with clients.
Abby Smith cited Florida’s whistleblower protection law in her lawsuit filed in U.S District Court, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen.
Smith said she learned that Xentel officials were “changing the terms of contracts which had previously been signed by various clients, and forging the names of clients, to make it look like the clients had actually agreed to the ‘changed’ terms,” her complaint said.
Smith said she complained numerous times to management and eventually had a meeting with top Xentel executive Michael Platz, who until this past January was chairman of iMarketing Solutions Group, RMG’s parent company.
Smith was fired soon after complaining about the alleged forgery, she claimed. Xentel denied Smith’s allegations and said she had been let go only for economic reasons. The case was eventually settled in mediation.
Platz, who studied at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont., remains a director of the company.
Maher and McGregor complete their report as follows:
CIMS provided a receptacle for the hundreds of thousands of records generated by RMG’s large-scale calling programs.
Davis is the merged company’s second-largest shareholder. Platz and he served as co-CEOs for a time, but Platz stepped down as co-CEO in January and now serves as a director….
Longtime key Conservative organizer Stewart Braddick is listed on RMG’s website as director of the company’s Focused Direct Response program. Braddick is also listed as director, Focused Direct Response, for the American company Target Outreach Inc., which works for Republican campaigns. Sometime recently, though, the page that included his bio was wiped from the Target Outreach site[xci]
The allegations against Xentel DM seem to go on and on. The complaints cover many subjects, including alleged sexual harassment, alleged drug addictions of employees, and alleged failure to accommodate disabled employees.[xcii]
Several days before Maher’s and McGregor’s report on the unsavoury history of RMG and its corporate parent,The Toronto Star had published an article on Stewart Braddick calling him one of the political “masterminds” for RMG. Braddick worked in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Office organizing domestic and international travel. He then worked for Gordon Campbell’s campaign in British Columbia, strategically resigning in an act that Mike Harris has described as one of political loyalty. Braddick’s resignation apparently helped to stop a revelation of impropriety from being traced higher up the chain of command. The revelation shed light on a dubious payment by the right-wing Campbell Liberals of BC for negative coverage of a political opponent.
According to Allan Woods and Tonda MacCharles, Braddick “spent more than two decades scouting out fertile territory for right-wing politicians in Canada and the United States.” The Star’s story on Braddick makes reference to $300, 000 being paid to RMG’s American branch, Target Outreach, by the Republican National Committee.[xciii]
RMG’s web site describes the company as “Canada’s largest direct-contact firm working in the political sector. We work exclusively with right-of-centre campaigns to develop fundraising and voter contact strategies that target your message to the right audience, maximize your vote-getting, and win.” RMG’s promotional statement continues, “Let us show you how our program will take you far beyond the traditional approach of simply identifying voters and executing a Get Out The Vote effort on election day.”
RMG calls attention to its 400 full-time employees. Echoing Preston Manning’s figures, the company claims to have raised over $75 million over the last 15 years for conservative campaign funds. It has sold over a million party memberships. The company goes on to claim that, under its auspices, the Conservative Party of Canada has raised four times as much money as the Liberal Party of Canada. “The Conservatives have flourished in this new environment,” affirms RMG, “by getting hundreds of thousands of donors to give small amounts, average about $ 100 every year.”[xciv]
“Too often,” RMG elaborates, “political campaigns throw money away on big schemes that try a scattershot approach, or try to blanket everyone with the same message and hope for the best. In today’s highly-competitive political arena, this is not the way to win. RMG works with your campaign to create effective programs that combine detailed client data with critical demographic data. We help your campaign target the right audience, get your message across, maximize your vote-getting, and win.”[xcv]
The headquarters of RMG are on Bay Street in Toronto. The founder and CEO of RMG is Michael M Davis. Andrew B. Langhorne is Chief Operating Officer. Marianne Mulders goes by the title of President of Non-Profit and Relationship Management. Greg Kaufman is identified as Chief Knowledge Officer and Chris McCarthy is billed as Vice-President and Director of Operations.[xcvi]
A web search on RMG and its founder suggests a desire on the part of some not to be forthcoming on the specifics of the company’s origins or the career details of its originator. There is, for instance, no Wikipedia article on Michael Davis. There are no images of him to be found on Google. Similarly there is almost no information given on the page of the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) devoted to Michael Davis except an E-mail address and a mention of his company, Responsive Marketing Group. The IAPC places Davis’ RMG in the United States.[xcvii] The absence of relevant information where one could reasonably expect to find it raises a number of questions that could certainly be answered by a Royal Commission on electoral practices in Canada. For now, however, the information provided by Garth Turner, Tom Flanagan and Preston Manning helps us to fill in some of the blanks and strategic silences.
The cross-border aspects of RMG are complicated by the fact that there is an RMG headquartered in Richmond Virginia in the United States. Founded by Stuart Holt, who also founded a Evangelical Institute for spreading the Gospel through targeted digital communications, the Response Marketing Group seems to be engaged in pretty much the same business as Davis’ RGM.[xcviii]
The Virginia based company did open a Toronto office in 1998.[xcix] I have not been able to find any direct link, however, between the two corporate entities that have such similar names and such similar functions in the field of data collection and data mining. There is plenty of reason, however, to suspect that techniques of micro-niche targeting and voter suppression are dependent on interactive hardware and software not easily containable within national boundaries. Like the Internet itself, the design, scope and application of this hardware and software is most likely transnational as are the careers of those on the cutting edge of electioneering through data collection and data mining.
Certainly there would be plenty of reason for the 80 so-called right-of-centre parties in the International Democratic Union to hire companies or inter-related complexes of companies that act transnationally in the design and implementation of electioneering strategies. In this way the parties involved can achieve economies of scale in developing techniques, personnel, and systems for advancing very similar agendas.
While cooperation across borders is inevitable and often desirable in this era of globalization, there can be no justification for keeping the nature of the collaboration secret from us voters whose ballots determine the nature, quality and orientation of governments in national, provincial, state, and municipal settings. A Royal Commission could determine the effects of applying transnational approaches to the digital facets of electioneering in Canada. How does this process affect the diversities encompassed in Canada’s indigenous political culture? What happens, for instance, when the hardware, software and strategies developed for the political culture of republics is deployed in systems of parliamentary democracy?
The Politics of Power in an Era of Keynesianism for the Rich and Government Austerity for 99% of Society
In the early hours of the political scandal it looked for a time that Conservative Party activists were prepared to make a scapegoat of Michael Sona, the communications director for the campaign of defeated CPC candidate in Guelph. Conservative Party strategists seemed ready to throw Sona under a bulldozer of political opportunism in order to stop the revelations from heading up the chain of command to the higher levels of a political organization in which the CIMS system and its RMG designers and operators form an integral part.
Bob Rae was quick to move his gaze away from the details of what had happened in Guelph to consider the robocon scandal’s larger implications for the credibility of the Prime Minister of Canada. Rae accused the current PM of “creating a Nixonian culture.” Said Rae, “This stuff doesn’t happen unless the boss lets it happen.” He went onto to allege that Stephen Harper “has allowed to seep into his party and into his organization a culture of attack and, frankly, a culture of deception and dirty tricks, where almost anything goes.”[c]
This culture of attack cultivated by Stephen Harper and those closest to him often moves beyond the realm of legitimate debate between political rivals to the targeting of civil servants and watchdog agencies like Elections Canada. In 2009 Haroon Siddiqui of The Toronto Star provided a tally of some of those who have been removed from office or otherwise stifled in their efforts to live up to the higher calling of their profession as civil servants. In helping his readers to “count the heads that have rolled in Ottawa,” Siddiqui provides the following list:
Peter Tinsley, chair of the military police commission, who initiated the Afghan prison abuse probe – refused a second term.
Paul Kennedy, chair of the Complaints Commission for the RCMP, who criticized the use of Tasers – refused a second term.
Linda Keen, nuclear watchdog, who insisted on safety at Chalk River – fired.
Kevin Page, parliamentary budget watchdog, who rattled the Tories with several revelations – rendered ineffective with a cut of $1 million from his $2.8 million budget.
Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer, who probed Tory election spending – publicly attacked.
Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who dared criticize both the U.S. and Israel – refused support for a second term and publicly rebuked.
Jean-Guy Fleury, chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, who opposed the Tory politicization of appointments to the tribunal – frustrated into quitting.[ci]
Richard Colvin is prominent among other top officials who have faced recriminations from the Harper Conservatives for doing their jobs. Colvin was a senior Canadian diplomat who served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. He witnessed detainees being handed over by Canadian soldiers to the puppet government of Hamid Karzai for possible torture. At the time Colvin did everything in his power to inform his superiors of this possible infraction of international law by the Canadian government. When Colvin brought forward his explosive testimony to a parliamentary committee that had invited the civil servant to speak he was publicly chastised in the House of Commons by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.
Colvin’s maltreatment by the political branch of government caused 25 former Canadian ambassadors to intervene in a letter pointing out how the effect would be to create “a climate in which officers may be more inclined to report what they believe headquarters wants to hear, rather than facts and perceptions deemed unpalatable.”[cii] It was the growing scandal gathering around Colvin’s testimony that prompted Stephen Harper to request yet another prorogation of Parliament from the Governor-General in order to help shut down a firestorm of aroused public indignation.
Other victims of this process of politicizing the Canadian civil service are Munir Sheikh, head of Statistics Canada and Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak, the RCMP officer in charge of the cancelled Canadian Firearms Program. Sheikh resigned after the Harper Conservatives shut down the long-form census against the explicit advice of this principled civil servant.[ciii] Is it possible the CIMS system operated by the Conservative Party and its RGM partners has reached a point where it incorporates more data on Canadians than Statistics Canada ever gathered?
This record of recriminations raises questions about the relationship of Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, to the Harper Conservatives. Why did Mayrand avoid the fate of other government officials in watchdog positions such as those held by nuclear expert Linda Keen and human rights jurist Louise Arbour? Is it possible that part of the plea bargain worked out between Elections Canada and the Conservative Party together with its chief operatives included some kind of agreement involving Marc Mayrand’s future employment? How has it been possible for Mayrand to keep his job when so many other officials in similar shoes have been forced from office for even questioning Conservative Party policies let alone pressing charges on Conservative Party officials?
Like Bob Rae, Stephen Harper began his political life as an admirer of Prime Minister Trudeau. Harper moved beyond his youthful infatuation with Trudeau after he moved to Edmonton in 1978, eventually getting a job through his father’s connections in the mailroom and then the computer division of the Rockefeller-based Imperial Oil Corporation.[civ] As Harper moved up in the company he resettled in Calgary where he continued his post-secondary studies. At the University of Calgary Harper moved decisively towards the right wing of the political spectrum.
Harper was deeply influenced in his rightward turn by a single book, The Patriot Game, published in 1986 by Peter Brimelow, a researcher at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution. The Hoover Institution’s mission is to “sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life,” to support “the Constitution of the United States, its Bill Of Rights and its method of representative government.”[cv] Brimelow criticized a host of Canadian institutions including the entrenched status of career civil servants, Canadian content rules to protect Canadian culture, and Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy. The NEP put the national objectives of Canada ahead of Alberta’s oversight of the US-based oil and gas industry.[cvi]
Under the influence of Brimelow’s text, Harper became convinced that the policies of PC Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were only pale reflections of the real revolution in the application of right-wing ideology then underway in Ronald Reagan’s America.[cvii] This orientation prepared Harper to join with some of his teachers at the Calgary School, Tom Flanagan prominent among them, in embracing the economics of those opposed to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is remembered for his advancement of mediated forms of capitalism as expressed in the policies of social welfare states.
Like Flanagan, Harper embraced the anti-Keynesian ideology of Friedrich Hayak as popularized by the Chicago School economist, Milton Friedman. Like neoconservative stars Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dinesh D’Souza, Milton Friedman was a Fellow of the Hoover Institution.
In 1987 Harper joined forces with Preston Manning, the son of Ernest Manning who was an evangelical radio preacher and premier of Alberta. The younger Mr. Manning extended the heritage of the trans-Atlantic Social Credit movement to found the Reform Party of Canada. The Reform Party gained ground after the PC government of Brian Mulroney divided into its Quebecois and Albertan rumps following the breakdown in 1990 of the Meech Lake initiative to amend Canada’s constitution. Harper and Flanagan joined forces to help Manning’s political ascent.[cviii] They subsequently conspired to remove first Preston Manning and then Stockwell Day from the helm of the movement aimed at outdoing even the Liberal Party of Canada in integrating Canada into continentalist matrixes of political economy.
Flanagan was at Harper’s side during his years as Leader of the Opposition. When Harper moved into the job of prime minister, however, the new prime minister began publicly to distance himself from Flanagan whose right-wing zealotry was, according to Ted Byfield, too hard to conceal. The populist founder of the Alberta Reportbelieved Flanagan to be incapable of compromise. “Its not in his genes,” Byfield quipped, continuing, “The issue now is: how do we fool the world into thinking we’re moving to the left when we’re not?” Referring to the legitimacy of the fears of those “unnerved” by the rising power of the right, Byfield added, “Those people who said [we’re] dangerous-they’re right! People with ideas are dangerous. If Harper gets elected, he’ll make a helluva change in this country.‘’[cix]
As prime minister, Stephen Harper was hit by the great financial debacle of 2008 and 2009. Its causes are widely attributed to the extreme excesses in the deregulation of Wall Street’s financial institutions. This deregulation applied the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman in ways that essentially extended to large banks virtual licenses to steal based on the mass marketing of derivative products that lacked sustainable value.[cx]
In the election season in the autumn of 2008 the Harper Conservatives extended $75 billion in financial help to the Canadian chartered banks, a transfer of wealth that for the most part passed under the radar screen of most mainstream news reporting.[cxi] Then in late January of 2009 the Harper Conservatives returned back to Parliament after a period of prorogation to pass a budget that very much embraced Keynesian principles of deficit financing to promote economic stimulation.
Generally speaking the taking on of massive debt by the Western democracies in order to hand over huge sums to the world’s largest financial institutions represents history’s most substantial transfer of wealth ever from those at the bottom and middle to those at the top of the global socio-economic pyramid. The causes of the financial debacle lie in the overzealous application of the rhetoric of deregulation as advanced by the government of the Ronald Reagan and his worldwide circle of devotees including Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan and the other technicians of the unite-the-right movement in Canada.
The massive transfer of wealth from the future earnings of taxpayers to the big financial institutions in Canada represents the formalization of a kind of socialism for the most entitled branches of society. This application of corporatist principles epitomizes a kind of Keynesianism for those at the top to be followed by programs of government austerity to pay down the debt incurred in the bailouts. The obvious injustices and inconsistencies in this government catering to the demands of the rich at the expense of the other 99% of society helped to make 2011 a year of major transnational protest. In this protest millions of citizens demonstrated their loss of confidence in politics as usual, including in the institution of political change through the agency of ballot boxes. They demonstrated the view that that the political system as presently constituted is rigged to the disadvantage of average people everywhere.
The robocon scandal raises deep issues that put in the forefront very basic questions about the future viability of parliamentary democracy in Canada in an era when the forces of continental integration have never been so intense. Are Canadian constitutional traditions of parliamentary rule inherited from Great Britain to be retained? Or are the alleged infractions of the electioneering rules part of a larger phenomenon that is eliminating space for the survival of indigenous institutions of many kinds, including the indigenous conservatism formerly maintained by at least a faction of the now-defunct PC Party? What is to be made of the apparent desecration of a powerful symbol of Canadian sovereignty, namely the right and responsibility of citizens to exercise our franchise in national elections to determine the membership of the House of Commons?
If Bob Rae is wrong in his allegation that Stephen Harper is almost certainly involved in the robocon scandal, then the Prime Minister of Canada should have nothing to fear from the work of a Royal Commission on electoral practices. Surely the tide of accusations still swelling up from the Canadian electorate raises such profound and important issues for the future of electioneering in Canada that the prospect of the whole episode ending in yet another sleazy plea bargain is simply intolerable. Indeed, the politics of that plea bargain, including the role played by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, require the kind of investigation that only a Royal Commission can provide.
Bob Rae was speaking from a base of solid intellectual, legal and political foundations, therefore, when he asserted that the Canadian people require a Royal Commission to consider how to fix a broken system of electioneering that is undermining the effectiveness and very legitimacy of our parliamentary democracy. Maybe such a treatment will help to address the very understandable alienation of young Canadians who are eligible to vote but stay away from polling stations in droves. This trend of voter alienation can only increase unless we meet the crisis as well as rise to the opportunity that the robocon scandal embodies.
[i] Ron Shaiko cited in Linda Diebel, “Top Tory MPs Used Top U.S. Republican Firm During May Election, The Toronto Star, 3 March, 2012, at
[ii] Mark Crispin Miller, Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform. Introduction to the Second Edition(New York: Basic Books, 2007)
[iii] Michael Keefer, “Evidence of Fraud in 2004 U.S. Presidential Election: A Reader,” Global Research .ca, 5 December, 2004 at
[iv] Michael Keefer’s essay, “The Unacknowledged Scandal of Electoral Fraud,” Humanist Perspective, Issue 165, summer 2008, p. 20 of the author’s final draft
[v] Michael Geist, “Internet Voting Carries Risk as Shown by NDP Experience, The Toronto Star, 31 March, 2012 at
[vi] Daniel Leblanc, “Well Over 10,000 Computers Used in Attack on NDP,” The Globe and Mail, 29 March, 2012 at
[vii] Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, “Fraudulent Robocalls Absolutely Outragious: Chief Electoral Officer,” The Montreal Gazette, 30 March, 2012 at
[viii] Leadnow, “Robocall Election Fraud, Demand a Public Inquiry and Real Consequences,” at
[x] Srephen Maher and Glen McGregor, “Robocall Ridings Face Legal Challenge to Overturn Federal Election Result, The National Post, 27 March, 2012 at
[xi] Postmedia News, “Elections Canada Confirms 31,000 Complaints as Tory Robocall Counterattack Backfires,” The National Post, 2 March, 2012 at
[xii] See Jerome H. Black, “From Enumeration to the National Register of Electors: An Account and and Evaluation of the Lortie Commission, Choices, Vol. 9, no. 7, August, 2003, pp. 1-44
[xiii] Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, “Robocalls: Liberals, Tories Used Hardball Tactics in Guelph Ontario, Ottawa Citizen, 12 March, 2012 at
[xiv] Alison Cross, “Pierre Poutine Remains in Hiding as Rae Demands Robocall Royal Commission,” The National Post, 12 March, 2012 at
[xv] Allan Woods, “Robocalls: Older Canadians Targeted by Election Day Phone Calls, Elections Canada Believes,” The Toronto Star, 9 March, 2012 at
[xvi] Jason Fekete, “Robocalls: Voter Scanadal Rocking Canadian Politics is Deplorable: Preston Manning,” The National Post, 9 March, 2012 at
[xvii] Joseph S. Nye, “In Government We Don’t Trust,” Foreign Policy, No. 108, Autumn, 1997, pp. 99-11
[xviii] Stella Dawson, “Insight: West in Political Crisis Has Echoes of the 1930s,” Reuters, 1 January, 2012 at
[xix] See Supreme Court of the United States, Bush versus Gore, 12 December, 2000 at
David W. Moore, How to Steal an Election: The Inside Story of How George Bush’s Brother and FOX News Miscalled the 2000 Election and Changed the Course of History (New York: Nation Press, 2006); Howard Gilman, The Votes That Count: How the Courts Decided the 2000 Presidential Election (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Bruce Ackerman, ed., Bush v. Gore: The Question of Legitimacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)
[xx] See George Grant, Lament for a Nation, The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Princeton N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1965)
[xxi] Lawrence Martin, “Is There an Old-Style Tory in the House,” The Globe and Mail, 26 August, 2010 at
[xxii]Elections Canada, Regulation of Election Activities by ‘Third Parties:’ Overview and Statements by the Chief Electoral Officer at http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&document=index&dir=thi/thiinf&lang=e
[xxiii] Mitchell Anderson, “Stephen Harper vs. Canada: 2004 Case Could Spell Canada’s Future,” The Tyee, 17 April, 2011 at
[xxiv] Michael Keefer, “Prime Minsister Stephen Harper and Canadian War Crimes in Afghanistan,” Global Research.ca, 24 April 2011 at
[xxv]Errol P. Mendes, “Prorogation Redux: Harper in Contempt of Parliament,” The Toronto Star, 5 January, 2010 at
[xxvi] Edward McWhinney, The Governor-General and the Prime Ministers: The Making and Unmaking of Governments (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2005)
[xxvii] Eugene Forsey, The Royal Power of Disallowance in the British Commonwealth (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1938)
[xxviii] Kirk Hallihan, “W.L. Mackenzie King: Rockefeller’s ‘Other’ Public Relations Counsellor in Colorado,” Public Relations, Vol. 29, 2003, pp. 401-414
[xxix] On King and the American Empire see Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), pp, 492-495; On Rockeller and the Ludlow massacre see Hall, Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010)
[xxx] See George Grant, Lament for a Nation, The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Princeton N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1965)
[xxxi] Louise Elliot, “PM Gave Jean Pledges in Prorogation Crisis,” CBC News, 20 October, 2010 at
Peter Russell, Discretion and the Reserve Power of the Canadian Crown, Canadian Parliamentary Review, 2011, pp. 19-25; Russell, ed., Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009)
[xxxii] John Ibbitson, “Stephen Harper Pondered Appeal to Queen Over Prorogation,” The Globe and Mail, 30 September, 2010 at
[xxxiii] Law Professor Michael Geist on Keith Boag’s CBC’s “The National” documentary on political databases broadcast in 2008 at
[xxxiv] On the concept of State Crime Against Democracy see the special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 53, no. 6, February, 2010
[xxxv] Keith Jones, “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Inexplicable Intervention into Canada’s Election Campaign, World Socialist Web Site at
[xxxvii] Steven Chase, Tory Senators Face Elections Charges Over Campaign Spending,” The Globe and Mail, 25 February, 2011 at
Laura Payton, “Conservative Party Fined Over Breaking Election Laws,” CBC News, 10 November, 2011, at
[xxxviii] Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 41st General Election of May 2, 2011, 1.3 Litigation at
[xxxix] Canadian Press, “Conservative Party Drops Supreme Court Appeal,” 6 March, 2012 at
[xl] Direct quotes taken from Lawrence Martin, “A Blood Feud Beyond Ballots,” The Globe and Mail, 5 March, 2012 at
[xli]Peter Russell, ed., Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009)
[xlii] Marc Mayrand, Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 41st General Election of May 2, 2011, 1.2 Political Financing, at
[xliii] Jim Harris, “Harper Conquers Canada, One Robocall at a Time, “The Huffington Post, 27 February, 2012 at
[xliv] Jeff Davis, Elections Canada Falling Down in Electoral Fraud, Canada.com, 29 February, 2012 ay
[xlv] Nick Filmore, “A Different Point of View,” 1 March, 2012 at
[xlvi] IDU Elect John Howard Leader at
[xlvii] Robert Cleroux, Quebers Share in Election Scam, Orleans Star at
[xlviii] Bloomberg Businessweek, Company Overview of the Responsive Marketing Group Inc. at
[xlix] Allan Woods, “Robocalls: Older Voters Targeted by Election Day Phone Calls, Elections Canada Believes,” The Toronto Star, 9 March,2012
[l] Canadian Press, Former Tory MP Had Misgivings About Voter ID System, 16 May, 2012 athttp://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/politics/story/2012/03/16/pol-inky-mark-cims-.html
[li] Keith Boag of CBC on Voter Databases, 2008 at
[lii] See Ottawa Citizen, “ Many Jews Unsettled Over Harper Holiday Greetings,” 8 October, 2007 at
[liii] The Harper Index, Toronto, 9 November, 2007 at
[liv] David Bruser, “Charitable Empire Has High Costs,” The Toronto Star, 4 November, 2007 at
[lv] “RMG Receives Manning Centre Pyramid Award for Political Technology,” 7 April, 2007 at
[lvi] Ezra Levant cited in Marci MacDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper,” The Walrus Magazine, October, 2004 at
[lvii] Michael Keefer, “Death Squads versus Democracy: Tom Flanagan’s ‘Joke’ Directed Against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange,” Global Research.ca, 7 December, 2010 at
[lviii] Tom Flanagan, Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009)
[lix] Associates of Harper and Flangan cited in Marci MacDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper”
[lxi] Crawford Kilian, “Tom Flanagan’s Playbook for Ultimate Harper Victory,” The Tyee, 8 April, 2011 at
[lxii] Mario Toneguzzi, “American Expats Scramble to File Taxes,” Calgary Herald, 2 February, 2012 at
[lxiii] See Tom Flanagan, First Nations, Second Thoughts? (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000); Flanagan,Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010)
[lxiv] Anthony Penikett, Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2006)
[lxv] Marci MacDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper”
[lxvi] Hall, The American Empire and the Fourth World (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005); Fintan O’toole, White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)
[lxvii] Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper, “Our Benign Dictatorship,” New City, Winter 1996/97 at
[lxviii]The Orchard-MacKay Agreement at
[lxix]David Orchard cited in Marci MacDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper,” The Walrus Magazine, October, 2004 at
[lxx] See Allison@Creekside at
[lxxi] Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, “Robocalls Suspect Left Digital Trail That Could Lead to the Real Identity of Pierre Poutine,” The National Post, 6 March, 2012 at
Colin Horgan, “Conservative Party’s Robocall Scandal Has Canadians Less Than Impressed,” The Guardian, 20 March, 2012 at
[lxxii] Greg Weston, “Conservative MPs Used US-based Telemarketers,” CBC, 2 March, 2012 at
[lxxiii] Linda Diebel, “Top Tory MPs Used Top U.S. Republican Firm During May Election,” The Toronto Star, 3 March, 2012, at
[lxxiv]Allison Cross, “Call Centre Workers Speak Out, The National Post, 27 February, 2012 at
[lxxv] Tonda MacCharles, “Conservative Scripts Misdirected Voters in 2011 Election, Say Call Centre Staff,” The Toronto Star, 27 February, 2012 at
[lxxvi] Allison Cross, “Call Centre Workers Speak Out, The National Post, 27 February, 2012 at
[lxxvii] Ian Brodie cited in Steven Chase et. al. “PM’s Ex-Aide Urges Huge Investigation,” The Globe and Mail, 17 March, 2012, p. A3
[lxxviii] Community Team, “Should Punishment for Voter Suppression Be More Severe?” CBC News, 23 February, 2012 at
[lxxix] Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, “Tories Review Tapes at Thunder Bay Call Centre as Questions Grow Over Company’s Checkered Legal History,” The National Post, 2 March, 2012 at
[lxxx] The Toronto Star report and other press reports are cited in “About Those Election Call Tapes Being Reviewed,” 2 March, 2012. This report on the robocon scandal is one of many in the blog, Impolitical at
[lxxxi] RMG cited in Stephen Maher and Greg McGregor, “Firm Linked to Voter Confusion Take an Aggressive Stance Against Bad Press,” Canada.com, 9 March, 2012 at
[lxxxii] “Retraction and Apology,” The National Post, 3 March, 2012 at
[lxxxiii] Nick Filmore, “A Different Point of View,” 1 March, 2012 at
[lxxxiv] Jim Harris, “Harper Conquers Canada, One Robocall at a Time,” The Huffington Post, 27 February, 2012 at
[lxxxv] Laura Ryckewaert, “Meet the Reporters Who Broke the Robocall Story: One’s a Source Guy and the Other a Data-Geek,” The Hill Times, 5 March, 2012 ay
[lxxxvi] “Building Democracy,” 10 March 2012 at
On the Manning Centre gathering see
[lxxxvii] iMarketing Solutions Group, Infomart at
[lxxxvii] Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, “Conservative call centre company has checkered legal history in U.S.” Canada.com, 1 March, 2012 at
[lxxxix] Maher and McGregor, “Firm Linked to Voter Confusion Take an Aggressive Stance Against Bad Press,” Canada.com, 9 March, 2012 at
[xc] Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, “Conservative call centre company has checkered legal history in U.S.” Canada.com, 1 March, 2012 at http://www.canada.com/business/Conservative+call+centre+company+checkered+legal+history/6237407/story.html
[xcii] Complaints Board, Xentel DM, “Fraud and Scam” at
“Xentel DM Ripoff, Sex, Briken Promises, Lies, and Deceipt: Good Bad Ugly Toronto Ontario,” Ripoff Report at
[xciii] Allan Woods and Tonda MacCharles, “Marketing strategist Steward Braddick plays role in Conservative party’s electoral success,” The Toronto Star, 28 February, 2012 http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1137730–marketing-strategist-stewart-braddick-plays-role-in-conservative-party-s-electoral-success
[xcvi] “Company Overview of Responsive Marketing Group,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 27 March, 2012 at
[xcviii] “Company Overview of Response Marketing Group,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 27 March, 2012 athttp://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=764897
[xcix] Lucy Jones, “Response Marketing Group Opens Toronto Office to Service Canada Bank,” Direct Marketing News, 11 June, 1998 at
[c] Bob Rae cited in Potmedia News, “Stephen Harper’s ‘Nixonian’ culture to blame for illegal robocall scandal: Rae,” The National Post, 23 February 2012
[ci]Haroon Siddiqui, “Harper Acting Like an Elected Dictator,” The Toronto Star, 20 December, 2009 at
[cii] CBC News, “Ex-Diplomats Decry Government’s Attack on Colvin,” 8 December, 2009 at
[ciii] Cancelling and Avoiding Dissent, Unseat Harper, at
[civ] David Staples, Young Harper Rebelled Against Family and Headed West, Canada.com, 13 December, 2011 at
[cv] Mission of the Hoover Institute cited in Wikipedia at
[cvi] Peter Brimelow, The Patriot Game: Canada and the Canadian Question Revisited (Stanford California: Hoover Institution Press, 1986); See David R. Henderson’s review at
[cvii] William Johnson, “How Mr. Harper Was Brought Up Right,” The Globe and Mail, 16 May, 2002 at
[cviii] Tom Flanagan, Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and Preston Manning (Toronto: Stoddart, 1995); Trevor Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995)
[cix] Marci MacDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper,” The Walrus Magazine, October, 2004 at
[cx] Hall, Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), chapter 15
[cxi] Michael Chossudovsky, “Canada’s $75 Billion Bank Bailout,” Global Research.ca, 25 January, 2009 at