by Andrew MacLeod
To make history as the first Green Party member elected to Canada’s parliament, leader Elizabeth May must get past the incumbent, Conservative Gary Lunn. Luckily for May, who is positioning herself as the best candidate to beat Lunn, there is still a strong odour lingering from Lunn’s ‘victory’ in 2008, an odour that has yet to completely disappear. Complaints filed by constituents with Elections Canada remain unresolved, as do many unanswered questions asked in the House of Commons.
People in the riding will recall Lunn was in a tight fight with environmentalist Liberal Briony Penn, who came within 2,700 votes of unseating a cabinet minister often disparagingly lampooned in Frank magazine. The Ottawa-based magazine, familiar to many Canadians, was a popular, behind-the-scenes scandal sheet. Unfortunately, it ceased publication in October 2008.
Penn, in an interview, sounds like she’s still recovering. “I just felt like I was brutalized for two years,” she said. “There’s huge deterrence to running when you’re up against an oil patch that’s merciless, that will do anything to win.”
On the eve of the 2008 election, automated phone calls to people in the riding encouraged them to support NDP candidate Julian West. Problem is the calls went out 20 days after West had publicly withdrawn from the campaign. He withdrew after the media unearthed a headline story from 1996 that described how he had taken his clothes off, took part in naked body painting and swam in-the-buff during an environmental youth conference at a lakeside camp west of Lake Cowichan. Though many knew the NDP candidate had quit weeks earlier, it was too late to have his name officially removed from the ballot and 3,700 people voted for him anyway.
Recipients of the robo-calls who were equipped with caller display said the calls appeared to be coming from the NDP riding association president’s phone, who insists neither he nor anyone else associated with the NDP campaign had any part in making them. A Telus spokesperson confirmed that “spoofing” the caller ID system was possible, a practice that would conceal the call’s true source. Since the practice is legal in Canada, there was nothing the company could do, he said.
As might be expected, the response infuriated many Saanich-Gulf Islands residents who believe the calls had a significant impact on the final voting outcome. If you recall, Lunn only won by 2,625 votes and the 3,700 votes cast for Julian West would likely have made all the difference. Lunn also had the most to gain by having someone make the bogus calls. A representative from Lunn’s campaign went on record at the time saying they weren’t responsible for the calls.
In its subsequent investigation into the question, Elections Canada stated it had “…found no one who had actually been influenced in their vote because of the purported telephone call, nor was he [the Elections Canada representative] able to identify the source or the person or persons who actually made the calls.”
Still, many question the thoroughness of the investigation. “Had anything of this kind taken place in Haiti, a place where Canada sends international observers to ensure fair elections, a new round of voting would likely have been ordered. But when it comes to Saanich-Gulf Islands, a less rigorous standard seems to apply,” said a former resident of the riding.
But bogus robo-calls aren’t the only allegation of dirty tricks committed by Gary Lunn’s campaign.
While his campaign spent close to its legal limit, what caught the eye of election watchers was the fact that five third party advertisers spent another $15,000 on advertising endorsing Lunn. One of the groups, Citizens Against Higher Taxes, said it bought signs from Lunn’s campaign co-manager Byng Giraud.
At the time, The Tyee reported the advertisers in question appeared to have close links to Lunn’s team. Four of the groups shared the same financial agent and were registered out of the office of lawyer Bruce Hallsor. At the time, Hallsor was vice-president of the Conservative’s Saanich-Gulf Islands riding association. He is also a long time Conservative organizer federally, a former Canadian Alliance Party candidate and a provincial Liberal.
Another was registered under the name of Patricia Trottier, whose husband is Gwyn Morgan, the former president and CEO of EnCana Corporation and a former fundraiser for the Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties. [Liberal candidate]Penn said her campaign workers saw people from Lunn’s team with a pick-up truck carrying signs from one of the supposed third-party groups. “It couldn’t have been more obvious,” she said. “It’s breaking the law and yet there’s no recourse… There’s no following up and enforcing the law.” That failure to act will just make people more cynical about elections and politicians, she said. “What’s the logical conclusion of this? It’s scary. This is how democracy is eroded.”
When the NDP raised questions about the matter in the House of Commons, Conservative MP James Moore insisted, “The member involved has always respected the campaign finance laws in this country in the past and always will in the future.” In an interview, the NDP MP who asked the question, Bill Siksay, observed, “It seems to be an attempt to manipulate the election law in terms of the amount of money that can be spent on a campaign… It sure doesn’t seem right.”
“There’s a lot of concern about the number of what generally gets referred to as dirty tricks in the 2008 election,” said May, who looked at the matter while researching her book Losing Confidence about the threats to Canadian democracy. “Saanich-Gulf Islands appeared to be the riding in Canada that had the highest percentage of dirty tricks.”
While the federal election regulator said it was keeping a file open on dubious third-party advertising in the riding, no further actions have been taken. As one Liberal Party official put it in a recent email, “The irregularities are certainly on Elections Canada’s radar and they’ve chosen not to pursue them further. I don’t feel like justice was served on the phone call issue or the third-party business.”
A call to Lunn’s campaign office seeking comment for this story went unreturned. In the absence of a full investigation, it is hard to say for certain who was behind the dirty tricks in Saanich-Gulf Islands, May said. “It’s clear who benefitted from them, but it’s a long way from saying who committed them.”
According to May, the people working on her team are watching Lunn’s campaign closely and are ready to cry foul if necessary. Early in the campaign, there were concerns that a taxpayer-funded mail-out from Lunn arrived in mailboxes in the riding after the election was called, but Lunn said they were mailed before the writ was dropped so there was little the Greens could do, May said.
Meanwhile, May said she is focussed on running a clean campaign and believes she can win. Polls have put her within a couple of percentage points of Lunn and she noted there are voters she’ll draw that Penn couldn’t last time. “There’s quite a lot of Conservatives who’ve decided they’re going to send me to Ottawa and see if I can make a difference.”
Many conservative voters are frustrated with a party that used to say it stood for ethics in politics but seems to have adopted a “culture of win at any cost” where ruthlessness may trump restraint, she said.
Adding to that impression is the fact four key Tories, including two sitting senators, were charged in February for “wilfully” exceeding campaign spending limits as part of the “in and out” scheme in the 2006 election. Party officials were alleged to have improperly reported the expenses of 67 Conservative candidates, allowing the party to exceed the national advertising spending limit and to claim taxpayer-funded payback for expenses that had never actually been incurred. One such official, Raymond Lavigne, has since been found guilty in federal court and resigned his senate seat as a result.
And for those thinking such dirty tricks couldn’t happen again, Liberal candidate Joe Volpe said in the middle of this current campaign his supporters were getting harassing calls in his Toronto riding from a North Dakota phone number. A Volpe campaign worker reportedly swore an affidavit saying a caller admitted to working for the Conservatives, but the party has said they knew nothing about the calls and weren’t behind them.
That leaves candidates like May, who are in tight races against Conservatives, wondering what to expect. “You can’t prepare for something that might never have been done in the last campaign,” May said. “All you can do is do your best to stay on the high road yourself.”
It will be up to voters in Saanich-Gulf Islands whether to reward fair play or not.
Andrew MacLeod reports for TheTyee.ca website from Victoria.