Last year, as you may recall, the Conservative Party was caught bombarding residents of a Montreal riding with a misleading “poll” implying that their Liberal MP, Irwin Cotler, was resigning and that there would shortly be a by-election. The Conservatives soon admitted their guilt, but preposterously claimed that any criticism of this campaign would constitute an attack on Constitutionally protected freedom of speech. Their surveyor, Campaign Research, publicly stated that they were a market research organization, a member of the Marketing Research Intelligence Association, and would certainly never be involved in anything untoward.
That’s where the two parallel tracks of “justice” got going. As it turns out, apparently there is no law against a phone campaign that makes false allegations about a sitting MP. It’s only illegal if you do it during an election, when false proclamations about candidacy are outlawed by the Canada Elections Act. Cotler submitted a complaint to the Speaker of the House of Commons, a hallowed institution now filled by a 33-year-old insurance salesman from the Prairies. Predictably, Harper’s tame Speaker was trotted out to issue a vague ruling that the phone campaign was “reprehensible” but fell outside of his mandate as Speaker. This is not surprising. After a year of majority government, so far the Speaker has yet to issue a ruling confirming that anything doesn’t fall outside his mandate as Speaker.
The second track was with respect to the surveyor, Campaign Research. The MRIA opened an investigation of its member’s misconduct, the final report of which is now published. It concludes:
The actions of Campaign Research have likely caused the Canadian public to lose confidence in marketing research and have tarnished the image of the marketing research profession.
For that, Campaign Research has been officially censured by the trade association. There appears to be no punishment here save naming and shaming. The MRIA could have revoked Campaign Research’s membership, but said it wouldn’t do so because this sort of “polling” was only alleged to have happened once.
The fact that someone has officially censured the anti-Cotler campaign is nice, but the way it happened is worrying for a couple of reasons. First of all, the MRIA clarified that Campaign Research would have been found not guilty if they had carried out the polling questions under a subsidiary shell company that wasn’t a member of MRIA, and if its executives had not made public statements to the effect that they were in compliance with the MRIA’s code of conduct when really the calls weren’t. It just so happens that Campaign Researchhas such a shell company, the appropriately named “Campaign Support,” and presumably in future its executives will be appropriately circumspect in public. That eliminates their liability.
Which is fair enough. The question of “rogue contractors” came up in respect to the robocall investigation, and I’ve never really liked the notion. The fault, responsibility, and blame surely lies with the people who ordered the services more than with the people who provided them. The governing party ordered a series of misleading phone calls with the intent of publicly discrediting an opposition politician under false pretences. A market research group read out a phone script with the intent of professionally filling an order and thereby getting paid. Maybe neither are angelic motivations, but these are surely different levels of disturbing.
Which brings us to the final point. In Parliament, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, himself no stranger to breaking electoral law and thus gaining illegal advantage over his opponents, had this to say about the Montreal calls:
It is a settled issue insofar as the internal management of a private sector marketing organization. That is not a question for this House.
I’d be a bit leery of being a contractor for the Conservative Party, myself. If they order you to do something improper, and you don’t realize it in advance and politely ask them to pick another contractor, then they may leave you as the fall guy for the operation, even though they were the ones with the illicit motives and you were just the service provider.Tweet