B.C. Liberals Running "polling" Boiler Room

The flood of money that gushes into politics today is a pollution of democracy.

- Theodore H. White, American author and journalist, 1984

The B.C. Liberal party is running another controversial provincewide telephone "polling" operation, calling hundreds of thousands of voters through a telephone "sweatshop" at an estimated cost in excess of $1.5 million through to the May 17 election.

And the Liberal-connected company running the massive telephoning effort may be in violation of provincial- and federal- government employment and taxation regulations because of the way it is employing callers without deducting taxes, employment insurance, and Workers Compensation Board or Canada Pension Plan contributions, or providing vacation pay.

The Georgia Straight has obtained exclusive inside information about the downtown Vancouver boiler room-style phoning, which costs about $25,000 a day to reach as many as 16,000 voters daily and has been making calls five days a week since at least February and possibly earlier.

This Liberal phoning is separate from another telephone "polling" effort also uncovered recently by the Straight. That phoning is being conducted by Winnipeg-based Western Opinion Research, the party's pollster of record. Elections BC has described that polling as partly "push polling", a controversial U.S. election tactic that presents voters with political advertising disguised as opinion-research questions.

BC Liberal Voter Identification "Survey" Conducted by Total Impact Communications

Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening

May l speak with [voter name]?

Hi, my name is [name] and I am calling on behalf of [Liberal MLA name], your B.C. Liberal candidate and MLA for [riding name].

We have a few questions we would like to ask you.

1. First of all, in your opinion what's the most important issue of concern for you and your family?

[Does not say/record answer]

· Health care

· Economy

· Education

· Taxes

· Government reform

· Environment

· Other

2. Generally speaking, do you feel the B.C. Liberal government is heading in the right direction, or do you believe the government is headed in the wrong direction?

3a. If the provincial election were held today, would you vote for [MLA name] as your B.C. Liberal candidate, the local NDP candidate, the local Green party candidate, or another party's candidate?

3b. If "undecided", ask: "Which party's candidate would you be leaning toward at this time?"

3c. If they further choose NDP, Green, or 'other', then the survey is complete. However, if they choose Liberal, then the next questions are:

4a. Would you have an e-mail address for us to send you periodic information?

4b. Would you like to take a lawn sign during the upcoming campaign?

4c. Or could you spare some time to volunteer a few hours during the campaign?

Although this new phoning is clearly a voter-identification program designed to find Liberal supporters, it is presented to people being called as an opinion-research survey conducted on behalf of the Liberal MLA and/or candidate. According to two sources, the callers are told that if asked, they were to say they were calling from "Telematrix Research", in order to hide the true identity of the company actually conducting the phoning.

That company is Total Impact Communications Incorporated, owned at least in part by J.?P. Shason, a long-time financial and political supporter and a personal friend of Premier Gordon Campbell. Shason is listed as the only director and officer for the company in corporate records.

Total Impact also employs two veteran right-wing B.C. political operatives: Tim Pegg, campaign manager for Conservative MP John Reynolds in the June 2004 federal election and a former Vancouver civic Non- Partisan Association board member and spokesperson; and Grant Longhurst, NPA campaign manager in 2002. Pegg is in charge of the phone room but is not seen by callers.

In an interview with the Straight, Pegg confirmed that the B.C. Liberal party is a client but said he could not provide any information about the exact number of calls or the cost of the phoning program.

B.C. Liberal party executive director Kelly Reichert again refused to return Straight phone and e-mail requests for an interview.

Pegg said Total Impact is not the only company calling for the Liberals. "We only have part of the contract; it's not exclusive," he said.

Pegg said that "Telematrix Research" is an incorporated company that hires the phone-room callers, but the provincial Registrar of Companies said in a fax to the Straight that no such company name could be found in B.C. When asked what the relationship is between Total Impact and Telematrix, he said: "That's a pretty complex question. It's a contract relationship in some cases. One might do work for the other."

According to two disgruntled telephone callers who had previously worked in the phone room and contacted Political Connections with detailed information about the operation, Total Impact telephoners are trained never to use the company's name with voters, instead being told to say they are calling from Telematrix Research.

The sources, who requested anonymity, said that warning signs displaying the message "If asked, you work for Telematrix Research" are posted throughout the phone rooms, which are located at #205-314 West Cordova Street. Any voter attempting to find out who is really calling them is blocked, one caller said: "If people call back to ask who we are, because they have call display, we were told to hang up on them immediately, without even answering."

But Pegg claims that there is no attempt to hide the Total Impact name. "There is no reason why Total Impact wouldn't be identified," Pegg said.

The phone room's location, 314 West Cordova Street, adjoins the B.C. Liberal party's headquarters at #300-326 West Cordova Street, a location occupied by Shason and his company, Gastown Printers, which is downstairs at 328 West Cordova Street. Prominent Liberals have been spotted in the phone room several times, according to the unhappy callers.

No company called Telematrix Research can be found on the Internet, however, and the building directory where the phoning takes place does not list a Telematrix Research, but Total Impact Communications is listed. At press time, Telus information services had no listing for Telematrix.

According to the discontented callers, 80 phoners work daily at Total Impact for $9 an hour in four-hour shifts in two "crap hole" rooms nicknamed "Echo" and "Foxtrot". In total, about 200 to 300 individual callers are employed part-time and full-time and turnover is high. The phone room uses an expensive "predictive dialer" to maximize calling efficiency, but the computers being used to input the data are in poor condition and running on Windows 98 operating systems.

Total Impact may be in violation of government taxation and employment regulations because its callers, according to the sources, are told by the company that they are "independent contractors" and, therefore, no employment-insurance premiums, Canada Pension Plan or Workers Compensation Board contributions, or taxes are deducted from their paycheques.

Former B.C. Employment Standards Branch regional director Dave Ages told the Straight that having done hundreds of investigations on independent contractors, there seems no doubt the phone-room callers are actually employees.

"From what you've told me and knowing about boiler-room operations, there's no question they are employees, not independent contractors," Ages said, adding that the phone-room workers are being denied the four-percent vacation pay that employees are entitled to, as well as possibly missing statutory holidays and overtime.

Pegg admits that "some" employees are classified as independent contractors but says: "I'm advised by my shareholders that it's appropriate."

Although the workers may be shortchanged, the cost to the Liberals of the enormous phoning effort is significant. A national telemarketing- firm representative said voter contact could be costed two ways: either on a per-caller basis at about $40 an hour or on a per-contact cost at about $1.50 per contact made.

With 80 callers at computer stations operating eight hours per day, that means 640 hours a day times $40 per hour would equal a cost of $25,600 daily to the Liberals. Alternatively, if callers can make 25 live contacts per hour, they are reaching a total of 16,000 people per day. Multiplying 16,000 times $1.50 per contact equals $24,000 daily.

In the May 2001 provincial election, Total Impact also did voter contact for the Liberals on an exclusive contract that all Liberal candidates were forced to use. Media reports then indicated the contract was worth at least $1 million.

Gerry Scott, the New Democratic Party's provincial secretary, said corporate fundraising makes it impossible for the NDP to match the Liberals' efforts.

"I don't think we can compete with that sort of spending," Scott said in an interview. "Their opportunity to get corporate donations is infinite, and the fixed election date gives them the ability to spend huge amounts of money."

Scott said that in the pre-election period, the NDP's voter-contact efforts will be almost exclusively reliant on volunteers, not paid phoners.

One of the disgruntled callers said new employees were told during training that they would be doing "survey work" that was "very official" but it soon became clear that the calling was election-oriented for the Liberals.

A transcript of the phone script obtained by the Straight says the voter is to be told they are being contacted on behalf of their local MLA and Liberal candidate with "a few questions". Callers then ask whether B.C. is headed in the right or wrong direction, what is the most important issue in the province, and whether they would vote for the local B.C. Liberal candidate or another party's candidate in the May 17 election.

Those who indicate they will vote for the Liberals or are leaning that way are asked if they would provide an e-mail address, take a lawn sign, and/or volunteer for the local campaign. (See sidebar for phone-script questions.)

The phoning will run through to election day, according to one of the callers, who described the phoning facility as a "boiler-room operation". "It's such a crap hole," the caller said. "The ventilation is all exposed, the walls are crumbling, the floors are uneven."

Although the profits being made by Total Impact Communications are unclear and Pegg would not talk about any financial issues, a 20-percent profit on total costs of $1.5 million would mean a $300,000 payday.

But clearly none of the profits are being shared with the $9-an-hour phoners or spent to improve their working conditions.

More next week on what the phoners are finding out about Liberal support. -

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net.