Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch announced it will launch a private prosecution against the Conservative Party for its role in the 2011 "robocalls" scandal, which misled some Canadians to go to the wrong polling stations in key ridings.
The group decided to take action after government lawyers refused to press charges.
At the time of writing, Democracy Watch is focusing legal efforts on one individual at Conservative Party Headquarters who booked calls that gave voters across the country incorrect polling station locations— even after Elections Canada warned all political parties not to engage in such activities during the 2011 campaign.
“The Commissioner of Canada Elections and Director of Public Prosecutions have clear evidence that the Conservatives made election robocalls that misled voters, which is a clear violation of the federal elections law, but they won’t prosecute. So Democracy Watch will, to ensure the violators are held accountable for their wrongdoing,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, in a media release dated July 23.
So far, the robocalls scandal has resulted only in the conviction of Michael Sona, who was sentenced to nine months in jail in a case that Conacher said was based on relatively weak evidence.
His offence was putting out a robocall aimed at preventing 6,000 voters in the Guelph region from casting their ballots, resulting in 150-200 people being successfully tricked, according to a CBC article dated Nov. 19 2014.
But many believe Sona was a relatively minor player in the scandal whose activities targeted only one riding. The judge also said he that he received help from at least one or more people.
Sona aside, Conacher said that the elections commissioner found that 27 per cent of voters in one sample received misleading voting information, a snapshot from a Canada-wide operation.
The Commissioner of Canada Elections first concluded in April 2014 that officials in the Conservative Party booked robocalls to voters in ridings across Canada, but did not refer his findings to the Director of Public Prosecutions for review and possible prosecution, despite a clear violation of election rules.
As a result, the Conservatives, Sona excepted, were let off the hook despite extensive evidence that they deceived voters across the country.
According to Conacher, the commissioner refused to disclose rulings on past elections-related complaints and an audit of the 2011 campaign revealed systemic enforcement problems.
In response to the commissioner’s secrecy, Democracy Watch filed a complaint with the federal Information Commissioner about the refusal to disclose his rulings on past election complaints that totaled roughly 3,000 since 1997. Conacher said that the commissioner refused because some of the rulings might make him look bad.
“The failure to disclose these rulings makes him look even worse because he’s covering up biased or ineffective enforcement in the past,” said Conacher.
In his view, a successful prosecution was all the more urgent in the run-up to the Oct. 19 election, as the chances of another robocall scandal remained high.
“These calls can be made from anywhere in the world just by routing them through a computer and as a result can be essentially untraceable, but I think they’ll be calls that no-one can connect to any party in terms of what is said in the calls,” said Conacher.
But the robocalls scandal fits into a wider trend of unethical behaviour since the Conservatives first took office in 2006, starting with their movement of national advertising money in and out of different ridings that exceeded legal limits, according to Conacher.
“For the first election that won them power, they violated the election law,” said Conacher.
While the Conservatives admitted wrongdoing in that case, overspending cropped up again during the 2008 Federal Election, when Tory MP Dean Del Mastro spent too much on his campaign and subsequently tried to cover it up.
The Tories have also been embroiled in ongoing scandals involving members of the Senate.
“This is particularly damaging as the Conservatives promised to clean up federal politics as a central promise in the 2006 election and they have broken that promise and gone on to degrade the state of federal politics in more ways through dishonest, unethical, secretive, and wasteful actions,” Conacher said.