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Barrie Grits chiming in on 'robocalls' scandal

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

It seems Barrie is not out of the woods when it comes to troublesome pre-election phone calls.

As complaints ring in across the country to Elections Canada - which is scrambling to deal with more than 31,000 of them - Barrie's Liberal party supporters are joining the queue.

Steven Roberts, the canvassing chairman on candidate Colin Wilson's campaign last spring, said he was dismayed when canvassers returned to the campaign office detailing the sorts of calls their constituents were answering.

"They were getting calls at 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 in the morning," Roberts said. "It was a totally inappropriate time to call. And, of course, they made sure the caller knew they were from Liberal Party.

"One of the people hit *69 and saw the area code, so we checked it on the Internet. The call came from South Dakota," he added. "We were stunned."

Liberal candidate Wilson says the series of harassing phone calls made to Barrie from a phone 2,100 kilometres west of here, were not robocalls; however, they were a form of harassment.

"The number of calls is unprecedented," Wilson said. "I think there were about 1,400 in the 2008 campaign. But 31,000 people phoning in to complain, that's evidence enough there was election tampering."

Wilson and Roberts insist the calls were made by people, not computers.

Mark Jessop, president of the Barrie Federal Liberal Association, said it goes beyond negative advertising.

"There's a pattern to it," Jessop said. "If they can lessen the number of voters, they lessen the vote-per-subsidy payment."

According to Elections Canada, the vote per subsidy is approximately $2.04 per voter, which goes directly into the national political party's coffers.

After the 2011 voters were tallied, the Bloc Quebecois receive $454,348 each quarter, the Green Party gets $291,590, Liberals receive $1.4 million, NDP get $2.2 million, and the Conservatives, with a majority, pull in $2.9 million a quarter.

There are also allowance regulations stating if a candidate wins 15% or more of the vote in their riding, they and their party are entitled to receive 60% of their election expenses back.

In not particularly close challenges, a party might try to convince voters to get angry enough to vote for another party.

In tight races, confusing the electorate with robocalls might be enough to quash the desire to vote by those fed up with misdirection.

"Follow the money," Roberts said.

"If you don't have to pay as many people for voting, that could mean a lot less money in a party's pocket."

As for the legality of the phone calls, John Enright at Elections Canada said calling late or early, or being rude, is not necessarily grounds for obstruction charges.

"While it may be annoying, it's not illegal," Enright said.

However, if there is misrepresentation - such as with the robocalls - that falls into Section 482 of the Canada Elections Act, and there are $5,000 penalties or up to five years in jail for those offences.

Only after the 31,000 complaints, consisting of calls, e-mails and faxes have been investigated, and the commissioner has reviewed them, will a resolution be made.

At that point, Enright said, he can forward his decision to director of public prosecutions Brian Saunders to determine a cause of action.

Last November, Saunders handed down sentences and fines in the thousands of dollars to the Conservative Fund Canada and the the Conservative Party of Canada for exceeding the maximum spending allowed during the federal election in 2006.


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