Steve Bartlett of The Telegram has done a remarkable job of pulling back the curtain on the tactics the Progressive Conservative government uses to manipulate online polls. Using a series of leaked BlackBerry messages, Bartlett was able to expose the well-ingrained habit of the Tories mobilizing their supporters to spike the results in these non-scientific surveys.

Not only will your local MHA tell you there is a poll, they will kindly instruct you how to vote.

As an added bonus they will even show you how you can get around pesky web page security protocols so you can vote early and vote often.

For a party that brags it doesn’t govern based on polls, they were sure busy trying to govern polls. It is a partisan effort on an almost industrial scale.

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Tory MHA Paul Lane found himself in the centre of a political storm over accusations of trying to influence the outcome of online surveys. (CBC)

Known critics of the government decried the practice the minute it was revealed. They called it manipulative, deceitful, sleazy and underhanded. I’d like to add another word to that list: pointless.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale may say the poll-fixing story is no big deal, but the actions of her caucus suggest otherwise.

The leaked Blackberry messages The Telegram published suggest a near obsession with winning these online surveys. "We are falling way behind on the CBC question," Mount Pearl South MHA Paul Lane reportedly writes in a message to MHAs, political staff and supporters.

"The computer is only allowing us to vote once. Obviously the opposition has found a way around this and we are also working on this."

A contest without a prize

It is a significant effort to skew the outcome of a non-scientific poll that has no demonstrable effect on voter behaviour. It is a contest without a prize. And it is a distraction from the larger communications problems facing this government.

The past year has been a difficult one for the Tories when it comes to issues management. From Bill 29 to Muskrat Falls, the government has struggled to find a clear voice when selling the biggest items on its agenda. In the polls that actually matter (the ones where you can’t vote multiple times by dumping the cookies out of your browser), the Tories have been on a steady downward slide. 

There has been significant turnover in the premier’s communications staff. The top job of communications director has been vacant for weeks. The government should be fixing these issues, instead of trying to 'fix' online polls.

There was a clear example of this communications incoherence this week. On Monday, Clerk of the Executive Council Robert Thompson sent a government-wide email announcing an immediate hiring freeze. It came just days after Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy said there would be layoffs in the upcoming budget. The province is facing a record $1.6-billion deficit. Drastic action was needed.

But on the same day the hiring freeze was announced, the government issued news releases outlining a half-dozen new spending initiatives, the premier announced a senior appointment in which she converted a half-time position to full-time, and — to top it all off — the entire cabinet would travel to Corner Brook to hold several days of meetings.

It was remarkably tone deaf. People’s jobs were on the line, but the cabinet was going on a road trip.

If the legitimacy of those choices were the subject of an online poll, the Tories would likely find a way to win the vote. But that would be fighting a battle that doesn’t really matter, while ignoring a problem that really does.