Conservative MPs have seized an opportunity to push back on the robocalls controversy after a Liberal MP admitted his campaign made an automated call of its own that didn't identify who paid for it.
Frank Valeriote, who was re-elected in Guelph, Ont., May 2, 2011, confirmed that one of his campaign volunteers made a robocall before the election that told people to vote Liberal because the Conservative candidate was anti-abortion. Valeriote said he approved the call and admitted the volunteer who placed the call gave a fake name.
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro said in question period Monday that the calls were dishonest.
"We now know that the member for Guelph, Mr. Speaker, in fact paid for illegal robocalls that concealed the fact that the calls came from his Liberal campaign. They used a bogus number, Mr. Speaker, a fictitious character, they broke the CRTC regulations, they broke Elections Canada laws," said Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, responding to a question by interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel, demanded Valeriote apologize.
According to the Elections Act, campaigns must identify who paid for advertising. The law doesn't specifically mention robocalls, but a spokesman for Elections Canada, asked whether the Valeriote campaign call was legal, pointed to the rules for campaign advertising.
The Liberals say Elections Canada has interpreted robocalls differently in the past. In a news release, the party said the agency last spring said on its website that live or automated messages sent to specific phone numbers and email addresses don't count as advertising.
Valeriote says the call doesn't qualify as advertising because it was clarifying his pro-choice position.
"This was a legal, issue-based called directed to a certain group of people who have been misinformed throughout Guelph about my position on abortion over a number of days, leading up to the call on Saturday," he said after question period.
He also said the call isn't advertising because it tells people to vote strategically, not to vote Liberal.
"Not at all, it was issue based, setting out where [Conservative candidate Marty Burke] stood on the issue and yes, common with the theme I carried throughout the campaign, vote strategically. I was encouraging people to vote, but that’s not advertising. It’s an issue," Valeriote said.
A recording of the call, made available by a Conservative supporter last Friday, features a woman saying Burke "believes that under absolutely no circumstance should a woman have the right to choose."
"The race in Guelph is very close. Vote strategically on Monday to protect our hard-earned rights from the Conservatives and Marty's extreme views," the voice said.
Guelph was also the target of illegal calls on May 2 claiming to be from Elections Canada. The calls redirected voters to the wrong polling station. An Elections Canada investigator has traced the calls to the campaign of Conservative candidate Marty Burke, according to documents filed in court.
Opposition demands inquiry, royal commission
Elections Canada also announced Monday that the majority of the 31,000 contacts they received from the public over election calls came from automated forms like those on the website of LeadNow, which is calling for a public inquiry.
The agency doesn't yet have hard numbers on how many of the contacts were complaints of illegal calls. A spokesman for Elections Canada said the contacts were variously from voters submitting complaints, messages expressing concern and questions about the issue, while others were following up previous complaints.
Meanwhile, the NDP kept up demands for a public inquiry and interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae called for a royal commission to look into allegations of voter suppression.
NDP MP David Christopherson said the number of specific complaints doesn't diminish the issue's importance.
"Is it any less shocking if the headline was 15,000 people may have had a phoney call?" he said. "Would that make it any less serious if it was only 15,000? I don’t think so. This is fraud. This is our electoral system."
Defending the calls made by Valeriote's campaign, Rae said a royal commission could look at how technology like robocalls, or automated dialing, are used in election campaigns.
"There is nothing inappropriate in giving a vigorous response or in having a robocall that gives a vigorous response with respect to a specific issue like abortion or like capital punishment," Rae said.
He also drew a distinction between the Liberal call that didn't identify the caller or who paid for it, and the voter suppression calls.
"Let’s not try to establish some kind of moral equivalence between these two things because there is none. And let’s be clear about that," Rae said.
MPs voted 283-0 Monday night to approve a non-binding motion to support giving Elections Canada more power to investigate campaign spending. The motion calls on the government to bring in legislation in the next six months to let the election agency demand receipts from political parties for election spending. Right now, candidates have to provide receipts but parties don't.
The motion also calls for telecommunications centres that do voter identification to register with Elections Canada.
Now it's up to the government to follow up with legislation to implement the motion's objectives.