More false equivalence in the Robocalls scandal

Steve Maher and Glen McGregor, the two Ottawa reporters who broke the Robocall scandal, have a long story in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen that warrants a close read.

The story leads with an account of Liberal robocalls in the Guelph riding on the eve of the May 2, 2011, federal election—calls that expressed dismay at CPC candidate Marty Burke’s opposition to abortion “in all circumstances.”

In a glaring escalation of false equivalence, Maher and McGregor say “revelations” about the automated calls “are giving the Conservatives a new line of defence against allegations of vote suppression and further muddying the events leading up to the federal election in Guelph.”

The Liberal calls did break an Elections Canada rule by failing to identify the candidate whose campaign team produced them. Many people, myself included, dislike receiving automated phone pitches from politicians or anyone else, but such calls are a legal and widespread feature of recent elections. I received some from my friend Ian McNeil’s campaign in the last Nova Scotia election, and for the last two weeks, I’ve been inundated with robocalls from NDP leadership candidates.

Some may criticize as negative calls that attack a rival candidate’s position on abortion, but there is nothing illegal or unusual about highlighting aspects of an opponent’s platform that another candidate thinks may prove unpopular with voters. On the contrary, doing so is a common feature of political campaigns.

To equate this with a concerted campaign to prevent supporters of opposing candidates from voting, by impersonating Elections Canada officials and misdirecting them to bogus, faraway polling stations, is risible. Yes, I realize, Maher and McGregor stop a half-step from asserting that equivalence themselves, but in its tone and copious detail, the piece takes a “Liberals did it too” approach. The headline (for which reporters are not responsible) reads: “Robocalls: Liberals, Tories used hardball tactics in Guelph, Ontario.”

This follows the widespread fasle equation of the Robocalls scandal with the Vikileaks revelations. As if revealing a cabinet minister’s hypocrisy (something the press gallery failed to do) is equivalent to organized efforts to deprive citizens of their vote.

Buried deep in the Maher-McGregor story — really deep, starting at the 21st paragraph — is some impressive reporting on the mechanics of the Robocall scam, based apparently on telephone records. In my view, this stuff should have been the story’s lead.

That it was not perhaps reflects the predilections of the Citizen’s managing editor, Andrew Potter, who, in an extraordinary breach of traditional newspaper church-state separation, took to the Citizen’s op-ed page yesterday to dismiss “hand-wringing” about the robocall flap as so much “hysterias of the pundits.” After all, writes Potter, things are even worse in Russia.

Isn’t that a great standard by which to judge Canadian election fairness, or editorial policy for that matter? (Potter’s dismissal of the latest Harper scandal is cloaked in much solemn chin-stroking about why good people sometimes do bad things.)

One other nugget in the Maher-McGregor story caught my eye. Not surprisingly, officials of Burke’s  campaign were upset when calls attacking his extreme anti-abortion views began three days before the vote. As the Citizen story reports:

Later that afternoon, Burke’s deputy campaign manager, Andrew Prescott, took to Twitter to denounce what he said was a “vote suppression” effort aimed at his candidate.

“Anti-#CPC voter suppression phone calls currently underway in Guelph, suspecting #LPC” — the Liberal Party of Canada — he tweeted at 5:22 p.m.

The Liberal calls may or may not be objectionable, and they did break Elections Canada rules, but they are not in any sense voter suppression calls. So why did that phrase spring to the fingertips of a senior Conservative Party campaign official? Is it just possible the Conservative camp had voter suppression phone calls on its mind?

For the record, Prescott has has consistently denied playing any role in the illegal robocalls being investigated by Elections Canada. He declined to speak with Maher and McGregor about the tweets he sent on the Saturday before the election.

Just hours after Prescott’s tweets, as Maher and MacGregor detail in their story, the first of several calls from a pre-paid Virgin Mobile phone somewhere in Guelph, to an Edmonton-based automated calling company, laid the groundwork for the illegal robocalls that targeted Liberal and NDP supporters on election day. Calls that really were designed to fraudulently suppress non-Conservative votes.