Even if there were robocalls, Harper won fair and square

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dirty tricks are nothing new in politics. Sometimes they're even part of the fun.

Tearing down opponents' campaign posters is a time-honoured tactic in Quebec. And for decades, campaigns have been known to send pizzas after midnight to their opponents' headquarters.

The robocall affair, when all the facts are known, could turn out to be more sinister. Or it could turn to be just another conspiracy from social media.

Robocalls are automated phone calls that people generally receive on their land lines after dinner - which is one of the reasons people are increasingly discontinuing land-line service.

All parties use robocalls as part of their efforts to get out the vote.

In this case the Conservatives are accused of using robocalls to suppress the vote in last May's election, in at least one riding, and perhaps as many as several dozen.

In the Ontario riding of Guelph, robocalls informed Liberal-and New Democratic Party-leaning voters that their polling stations had changed address, when they hadn't.

The Conservative candidate in Guelph lost by 6,000 votes anyway. Robocalls don't change outcomes in races that aren't close, and so far no one has pointed to a close race whose result was changed by them.

Sorry, but this isn't Watergate. Nobody broke into Liberal or NDP campaign headquarters and stole their hard drives. No journalists are meeting sources at 2 a.m. in the garage of the National Arts Centre. Nowadays journalists generally just talk to each other on Twitter.

Which is why most of them missed the developing story of Stephen Harper's emerging Conservative majority in Ontario in the last week of the campaign. It had nothing to do with robocalls, and everything to do with strategic voters known as Blue Grits leaving the Liberals in the last days of the campaign to vote for the Conservatives in order to stop the surging NDP. The Conservative message was simple and devastatingly effective: The NDP will do for Canada what it did for Ontario. As a result, the Conservatives won 30 out of 45 seats in the Greater Toronto Area, once an unbreachable Liberal fortress. That, and not robocalls, remains the big story of the 2011 election.

There was an election. Harper won it, fair and square. Elections are usually won by the team with the best leader and message, the best candidates and organization, the deepest pockets and the ability to get out the vote. In 2011, that was the Conservatives, who won 40 per cent of the vote nationally, sweeping Ontario and the West.

Somehow, Harper is being accused of creating a toxic political culture, of personally condoning dirty tricks like robocalls. There's no evidence making such a link. But let the RCMP and the chief electoral officer investigate. That's their job.

In other news from the dirty-tricks department, it turns out that Vikileaks was a Liberal operation, run by a researcher in the office of the party's interim leader, Bob Rae.

Rae made the revelation himself in the House of Commons, announcing that the staffer in question had resigned.

Vikileaks was a Twitter account set up to embarrass Public Safety Minister Vic Toews by divulging messy details of his divorce. It occurred after Toews introduced a child-protection bill two weeks ago with the comment that opposition members could either stand with the government, or with the purveyors of kiddie porn. The bill, C-30, raises serious privacy issues about the Internet, as even Conservatives have acknowledged.

Vikileaks was traced to a Parliament Hill email account and shut down within days.

"I want to offer to the minister my personal apology to him," Rae told the House. Toews accepted Rae's gracious apology, and in the spirit of the occasion, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird offered an apology of his own, for having accused the NDP of being behind Vikileaks.

Toews then went to his Twitter account to accuse Liberal MP Justin Trudeau of being part of the plot. "You discovered Vikileaks pretty quickly for an innocent bystander," Toews tweeted.

This would be when Trudeau wasn't giving interviews to Radio-Canada saying Stephen Harper's Canada wasn't his Canada, and that he might even prefer living in a separate Quebec to a Canada where gay marriage and abortion rights weren't respected.

That one really went viral in the Twitterverse.

It used to be said that a politician was never more than a sentence away from oblivion. Now it's 140 characters.

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