OTTAWA — The NDP is calling for a full-scale investigation into a dirty-tricks campaign apparently aimed at suppressing the Liberal vote during last spring’s election campaign.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says the whole Conservative approach to politics should be scrutinized.
The opposition demands came Thursday after harassing or misleading automated campaign phone calls were linked to a company that did campaign work for Conservative candidates, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Conservative party campaign manager Jenni Byrne denied that the party authorized the calls, although she left open the possibility that a rogue local party worker may have been involved.
Opposition parties maintained there’s little doubt the Tories were behind the dirty tricks, pointing out it’s not the first time the Conservatives have been involved in questionable or illegal campaign tactics.
Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said the latest tactics are a disgrace and those responsible must be held to account.
“Cynical, old-style politics have become a trademark for the Conservatives,” she said.
“Just a few months ago they pled guilty to breaking election spending laws, now they’ve upped the ante with what looks like the most widespread and systematic voter suppression campaign in Canadian history.”
Two New Democrat MPs have sent letters of complaint to the commissioner of elections and the RCMP, urging them to conduct a full investigation and charge those responsible.
Rae linked this latest complaint to a phone campaign in the Montreal riding of Liberal Irwin Cotler last year which suggested the MP was about to step down.
“What this suggests is a deeply troubling pattern of dirty tricks and systematic attempts to subvert the democratic process,” Rae said in an email.
Byrne maintained the Conservative party “ran a clean and ethical campaign and would never tolerate such activity.”
“The party was not involved with these calls and if anyone on a local campaign was involved they will not play a role in a future campaign,” she said in a written statement.
“Voter suppression is extremely serious and if anything improper occurred those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Liberal MP John McCallum says the ploy may have cost his party at least three seats.
He said Borys Wrzesnewskyj may have been a victim in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre.
“This is one case of a Liberal who may have won had these dirty tricks not been played.”
McCallum said Martha Hall Findlay in Toronto and Anita Neville in Winnipeg may also have been hurt by the robocall campaign tactic.
Voters in a number of ridings have complained they received automated calls advising them that the location of their polling stations had changed. Others say they got rude, harassing calls purportedly from the local Liberal campaign.
McCallum said he wants the Tories to co-operate fully in any investigation, although he admitted he has no evidence linking the party to the robocalls.
“We don’t have a smoking gun pointing to Stephen Harper and the Conservative party, but we do know that these actions benefited the Conservative party and we do know this strategy has been in their tool kit for some time.
“So there are definitely suspicions.”
Rae compared the Conservative hardball approach to politics to the style of former president Richard Nixon.
“A party whose entire approach to politics is negative … is responsible for a toxic and poisonous political culture,” he said in his email.
“It’s in this culture that dirty tricks thrive. Richard Nixon gave birth to Donald Segretti. Mr Harper gives birth to these tricks as well. The fish rots from the head.”
Segretti was a dirty tricks specialist in the infamous 1972 Nixon campaign. He spread rumours, harassed opponents and distributed phoney campaign literature aimed at discrediting Democrats. In 1974, his illegal efforts won him a six-month jail sentence.
Last November, the Conservative party and its fundraising arm pleaded guilty to exceeding their spending limit during the 2006 election campaign, through an elaborate scheme in which the party funnelled money for national ads through 67 local candidates. As part of a plea bargain, charges were dropped against four top party officials who implemented the so-called in-and-out scheme.