Liberals, NDP allege robocalls in Ontario election

Liberal and NDP politicians in Ontario say some of the alleged dirty tricks used in the federal election also surfaced in last fall's provincial campaign.

Automated phone messages designed to mislead voters, candidates say

Liberal and NDP politicians in Ontario say some of the alleged dirty tricks used in the federal election also surfaced in last fall's provincial campaign.

Just like the federal contest, Ontario's election featured automated calling machines with messages directed at voters.

Several Ontario candidates say there were messages designed to mislead voters —although none that said their polling station had been changed at the last minute, as is alleged in the federal vote.

Ontario Liberals, who were reduced to a minority government, say they were targeted in several ridings with so-called robocalls to voters suggesting they were going to set up a provincial gun registry as the federal registry was wound down.

"In rural Ontario that's a real red flag," said Peterborough Liberal member Jeff Leal.

There were also calls in several Liberal-held ridings suggesting the Ontario government was going to make it easier for a woman to get an abortion.

Leal said his 12-year-old daughter came home from school saying classmates received calls at home claiming "your dad is a baby killer."

"My daughter was pretty upset and told her friend: 'I know that's not true about my Dad,' " Leal said.

Environment Minister Jim Bradley said there were robocalls claiming to be from NDP candidate Irene Lowell telling people not to vote for Bradley, who has represented St. Catharines since 1977.

Lowell was so upset about the calls, made the day before the vote, that she went to Bradley's office to tell him she was not behind the dirty tricks. Bradley said he never suspected the New Democrats were paying for the calls.

In addition to St. Catharines, the New Democrats said another one of their candidates was the subject of automated phone calls trying to deter voters from supporting them.

Neethan Shan, the NDP candidate in Scarborough-Rouge River, was targeted by robocalls in his native Tamil language that party officials say threatened voters with jail time.

There were no other Tamil candidates in the riding. The NDP filed a complaint with police, but have not heard about the outcome of any investigation.

"Any time when voters are being tricked into either losing their vote, then you have to question what our democracy is coming to," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"I think that the investigation that's happening federally will give us some understanding of exactly who's behind some of these dirty tricks."

Elections Canada is investigating reports that voters in Guelph, Ont., received calls from a phone number with a 450 area code directing them to the wrong polling station during the last year's federal campaign.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says allegations the Conservatives were behind the misleading and harassing calls are nothing but a smear campaign by the NDP and Liberals.

No dirty tricks, Hudak says

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said his party had not heard any complaints about robocalls targeting Tory candidates, nor did they engage in any of the dirty tricks.

All parties used automated calling machines to get out their vote, and that's all the Conservatives did, said Hudak.

"When I heard about this I checked with my campaign team to verify," he said. "We looked through our scripts, and no, we did not engage in any of those types of activities."

Most politicians were reluctant to say who they think is behind the dirty tricks, but Ontario Liberal Party vice-president Christine McMillan made it clear she thinks it's the Conservatives.

"We are concerned by reports of an alleged voter deception scheme employed during last year's federal election, and troubling questions about the potential involvement of companies closely connected to the PC Party," McMillan said in an email.

"We'll continue to take action to keep dirty tricks and dirty politics out of Ontario, and protect our fundamental democratic right to vote."

The dirty tricks really turn off voters, said Leal.

"Contrary to what some others believe, it is having a real detriment on people voting in elections," he said. "They're tired of it."

Documents show the Ontario Progressive Conservatives spent over $2 million in recent years to hire Responsive Marketing Group, one of the companies contracted by the federal Tories during the 2011 election.

PC party spokesman Alan Sakach said RMG was hired by the provincial Tories to help get out the vote.

"We hired them to help us fundraise, identify Conservative supporters in the last election and encourage those supporters to come out and vote on election day," said Sakach.

"We didn't engage in any of this nonsense."

Elections Ontario would not say if there were any complaints filed about dirty tricks during the campaign for the Oct. 6 vote.

The agency said it refers any complaints that may require investigation to the Attorney General's office, which also refused to confirm if any had been filed.

"It is not the practice of the Ministry of the Attorney General to comment on or confirm any referral of an allegation of a contravention of the Election Act or the Election Finances Act, unless and until a charge has been laid," said spokesman Brendan Crawley.