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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Cotler ‘byelection’ calls subject of probe

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Irwin Cotler

MONTREAL — Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler welcomed a Canadian market research industry association’s announcement that it will investigate complaints about misleading phone calls made to his constituents last November on behalf of the Conservative Party.

The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) said last week it was striking a three-person complaint resolution panel to investigate the six formal complaints of professional misconduct it received from members of the public and one member firm.

The complaints were made against an MRIA member Campaign Research Inc., which was hired by the Conservatives to poll Mount Royal voters.

The company’s callers allegedly falsely informed Mount Royal residents that a byelection was imminent in their riding because, they said, Cotler was stepping down and asked if they would support a Conservative candidate.

The Conservative government acknowledged it was behind the polling, but defended it as legitimate voter identification research. The party did not agree that the conversations proceeded exactly as claimed and made no apology.

The Mississauga, Ont.-based MRIA describes itself as a not-for-profit voluntary association with more than 1,800 members working in the market information and survey industry.

In December, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer described the Mount Royal telephone campaign as “reprehensible,” but for technical reasons said it was not within his jurisdiction rule that the veteran Liberal MP’s privileges had been breached, as he claimed.

Cotler described the ruling as “a moral victory,” although he disagreed with Scheer’s conclusion that the evidence contradicted Cotler’s contention that disseminating false information adversely affected his ability to carry out his parliamentary duties.

MRIA executive director Brendan Wycks told the media that, before moving to form the complaint resolution panel, the Ottawa-based Campaign Research was given 30 days to find a mutually acceptable resolution with the complainants, but that process was unsuccessful.

If it finds fault with the company, the MRIA panel can recommend censure, membership suspension, or expulsion.

Neither Wycks nor MRIA communications director Anne Marie Gabriel returned calls by The CJN’s deadline.

Marian Levy, a Mount Royal constituent who e-mailed the MRIA in December, said she had no doubt that the pollster who called her told her that a byelection was coming in Mount Royal, even after she argued with the caller that this could not be true.

After Scheer’s Dec. 13 ruling, Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae wrote to Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer of Canada, asking that he refer the matter to the commissioner of Elections Canada for formal investigation.

Rae noted that Section 92 of the Canada Elections Act states that “No person shall knowingly publish a false statement of the withdrawal of a candidate.”

While the calls were not made during an election campaign, Rae wrote that he believes the situation is analogous because “Conservative operatives [were] conducting a campaign to deliberately misinform voters.”

Rae also wrote that consideration should be given to amending the Elections Act to explicitly prohibit knowingly spreading misinformation that a candidate or officeholder has withdrawn, whether or not an election campaign is on.

Cotler said a response to Rae’s request is still pending.

As for the current robocall controversy, Cotler said his office was told by some constituents that during the federal election campaign last spring, they received live phone calls purportedly being made on behalf of the Liberal Party and providing them with “misleading information” about their voting poll’s location.

Not only were these bogus, but they were offensive to Jewish constituents because some received those calls on Shabbat or Passover, Cotler said. The caller’s or callers’ identification could not be traced, he said.

Cotler’s campaign office in Cavendish Mall in Côte St. Luc was closed on those days, he noted.

His campaign officials filed a complaint with Elections Canada at that time.

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