The current robo-call scandal isn’t a new threat to democracy. In fact, it could have been nipped in the bud if politicians had opted for changes when problems surfaced in the 2008 election, led by Conservative malfeasance in the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. While there’s no going back to allow MPs to complete a re-do, Democracy Watch is calling on Elections Canada to reopen its investigation into the 2008 robo-call incidents. Moreover, the agency should be making public the details of all its investigations into irregularities, amounting to 2,284 complaints received by Elections Canada since 2004, says the Ottawa-based watchdog group.
“Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it is likely the robo-call scandal is the tip of the iceberg and that there are many situations which raise serious questions about whether the federal election law has been properly enforced since 2004,” says Tyler Sommers, coordinator of Democracy Watch. “Elections Canada must disclose the details of its rulings on 2,284 past complaints to assure Canadians that it enforces the law properly and effectively.”
Elections Canada is currently investigating the robo-call scandal in which voters in several dozen ridings received misleading phone calls, in some cases messages purporting to be from Elections Canada directing them to alternative polling stations in an apparent attempt to suppress voter turnout. There were annoying and ill-timed calls, also aimed at Liberal and NDP supporters, identified as coming from the party, but said to be harassing tactics to create ill will amongst supporters.
While Democracy Watch has faith in Elections Canada’s investigation – saying it’s too early to demand a full-blown public inquiry – it does want to see greater transparency to restore confidence in the agency and the electoral process as a whole. To start with, an election watchdog that’s working on behalf of the public should reveal all of the information it has collected on the public’s behalf.
That, says Sommers, doesn’t apply to current investigation into allegations of fraud, but there’s no reason not to release the findings of closed cases. The “ongoing investigation” excuse that Elections Canada keeps trotting out to Democracy Watch’s requests appear like so much stonewalling.
The agency’s reputation and integrity are at stake. More transparency is needed if Canadians are to trust there’s proper oversight in place. “Canadians need to be sure about what Elections Canada is doing to enforce the rules,” he notes. “We’re talking about the most fundamental aspect of our democracy: free and fair elections.”
Very strangely, Sommers adds, former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has opposed public disclosure of rulings on past complaints – more than 800 of the 2,284 complaints were made between 2004 and 2006 when he was in charge – but has called for full disclosure of exactly what happened and who did what in the robo-call scandal.
“If someone is not sent to jail as a result of the robo-call scandal, the system will have failed,” said Sommers. “And if Elections Canada does not disclose its rulings on past complaints, and all future complaints, Canadians will not be able to tell whether the system works fairly and properly in all cases.”
Compelling Elections Canada to be more transparent and, more broadly, making changes to some very undemocratic facets of our electoral process will require action from our politicians, not just all the talk, talk, talk coming out of Ottawa.
Opposition parties in particular are fond of making small issues – procedural matters, for instance, and turning them into big deals – playing politics. That’s not the case here. “The system is broken right now, and it needs to be fixed,” says Sommers, who maintains it’s not an overstatement to call this a fundamental threat to democracy.
Robo-calls themselves are not the issue – they serve a legitimate purpose in some cases – rather it’s the lack of transparency and accountability, he says. If they’re going to be used, there should be full disclosure as to who’s calling, on whose behalf and for what purpose. Compelling the parties to keep open records on all the calls would avoid a repeat of the situation now under investigation. Ideally, such rules would have been in place prior to last year’s election, following the irregularities in 2008.
“It seems clear from the 2008 robo-call scandal in a B.C. riding that Elections Canada has not been taking complaints as seriously as needed to properly enforce the law,” says Sommers. “If they’d changed the laws in 2008, there would be no Pierre Poutine.”