Are robocalls simply part of the election game in Canada?
The full extent of the “robocall” scandal rocking Stephen Harper’s Conservative government may never be known.
Although thousands have begun telling Elections Canada about crank calls during last year’s election, there are probably many other cases, like that of Martin Vondruska, that will never be investigated.
The North Vancouver resident received not only recorded telephone messages: a man purportedly from the Liberal party also rang him up and proceeded to argue with him.
“If that’s the way these guys are trying to get me to vote, at that point I decided I wasn’t going to vote Liberal,” Vondruska told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. Although he assumed then that the caller was just having a bad day, Vondruska now sees the incident in another light. “At that time, you didn’t necessarily think conspiracy,” he said.
However, the father of three isn’t inclined to go to Elections Canada. “Because it happened long ago, I can’t definitively say this was said or that was said,” Vondruska said.
On March 2, the federal election watchdog announced that complaints are flooding in following recent revelations about the use of robocalls as a dirty trick in the May 2011 election. The agency stated that it is reviewing 31,000 reports.
In another Lower Mainland riding, it may not be possible to trace a number of robocalls that annoyed many voters.
Patrick Tam went on leave as a constituency assistant of then–Vancouver South Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh so he could work on the reelection campaign of his boss. His duties included ringing people on voter lists. “We have markings [to indicate] whether we have called them or not,” Tam related in a phone interview with the Straight. “And, as per our own marking, [sometimes] it was the first time we called the person and the person would say that we’ve called them already four, five times. It was not only my own experience, and some of the other canvassers will say the same thing. People are pissed off.”
However, Tam said that the campaign did not file a complaint with Elections Canada, fearing that voters might have gotten even more upset if the agency called them to follow up.
Dosanjh lost the election, and Tam now works with Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray.
When asked about the robocall scandal, former federal Conservative strategist Bob Ransford talked about the “big picture”.
“In North America in general, we’ve moved too far away from what politics is about,” Ransford told the Straight in a phone interview. “We’re treating it more as a game, where it’s all about the technical part of winning. It used to be about trying to deal with people one-on-one and understanding and representing their concerns. And now it’s all about how many numbers can you accumulate through different uses of technology and how you can distill everything down to a 15-second clip.”
The cochair of the 2004 Conservative campaign in B.C. noted that robocalls and other tactics will continue unless there’s massive electoral reform. “We’re probably going to need to change the system and move to a more proportional system to make it change,” Ransford said.
As president of Fair Voting B.C., a group that advocates proportional representation, Antony Hodgson also believes that a shift in the voting system will minimize the impact of attempts to manipulate voting outcomes through the use of dirty tricks. Under the current first-past-the-post system, a candidate may only need to focus on a number of swing votes to win the election, even without the support of a majority of voters.
“The fundamental idea is that the representation in Parliament is based on the number of votes that a particular party gets,” Hodgson told the Straight about how proportional voting works.
While Elections Canada sorts through thousands of complaints, a marketing professor at SFU suggested that Harper and his Conservatives should display some humility. “Simply saying that, ‘You got proof, show it to me,’ that’s a very simplistic, rather dumb argument,” Lindsay Meredith told the Straight in a phone interview.
Based on what he’s read and heard, Meredith said, the robocall controversy has legs. “Hoping it will just go away will not make it blow away.”