Harper defends Conservative robocalls in Saskatchewan

OTTAWA – The Conservative party was operating within the bounds of normal process when it used robocalls to explore public opinion surrounding plans to change riding boundaries in Saskatchewan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.

Not so, opposition critics — including NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae — cried Wednesday as they accused the Conservatives of using “fraudulent” calls to manipulate the process.

An arms-length, independent commission is proposing to redistribute some of the province’s 14 federal ridings in order to better reflect increasingly urban populations in Regina and Saskatoon.

But the changes have met with stiff resistance from Conservatives, who hold 13 of Saskatchewan’s 14 seats and fear a more concentrated urban vote in some ridings might favour their political rivals.

The Conservatives admitted being responsible for the so-called “push poll” calls to would-be voters in Saskatchewan, which said some proposed changes to electoral boundaries would undermine provincial values.

The computer-generated calls identified no political party, saying only that they came from a company called Chase Research. That was a mistake, the Conservatives say.

In the face of a barrage of opposition questions Wednesday in the House of Commons, however, Harper insisted the party broke no rules.

“The party followed the rules and our position to the public is very clear on the commission,” he said. “The commission is working to re-draw the electoral boundaries according to the law.”

He said it’s part of the normal effort to produce new electoral boundaries.

“We are simply operating within the process,” he said.

Rae described the calls as nothing short of a Conservative effort to gerrymander Saskatchewan ridings.

But Harper said the commission expects to hear outside comment. “Those commissions accept and expect input from parliamentarians, from political parties and from the general public.”

Mulcair, for his part, was scornful: “Since when do robocalls become input in our political process?”

Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate the matter.

Goodale called the robocalls a “deplorable” attempt to undermine the work of the commission that should be fully investigated by the federal telecommunications regulator.