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  • Robocalls and the petrostate

    Briony Penn

    April 2012

    Links between election fraud and oil interests are so thick, it appears bitumen itself is lubricating the connections.


    OVER TWO DAYS in January, 2010, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held a campaign school at Delta Ocean Pointe Resort in Victoria in preparation for the 2011 election. Revelations of what went on during those two days has yielded intriguing insight into what might lie behind the current robocall scandal. The Manning Centre is a Conservative think-tank operating out of Calgary, headed by Preston Manning, and board members include Gwyn Morgan, ex-CEO of EnCana Corp and other luminaries of the oil and gas industry.

    Organizers of the campaign school had sent invitations to various Conservative and former Reform party members and campaign teams, encouraging them to attend. One such invitation eventually found its way into the hands of John Fryer, a former Green Party federal council member and campaign manager for Elizabeth May. Fryer is not the kind of politico you might expect to be attending a Manning Centre event, having won the Order of Canada for his work on international labour policy. Fryer’s experiences at the two-day event were described in a letter to the Globe and Mail on March 3, 2012, as the election fraud scandal unfolded.

    Fryer wrote, “Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed from those used by the US Republican Party. Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robocalls worked, techniques for recording messages, plus costs involved. He distributed his business card upon request. Instructors made it clear that robocalling and voter suppression were an acceptable and normal part of winning political campaigns. With election ethics like this, a more compelling case for changing to a system of proportional representation where each and every vote counts is hard to imagine.”

    Vancouver Observer reporter Emma Pullman had also interviewed Fryer. Pullman works for DeSmogBlog, investigating the climate denial industry and its financial backers in the oil industry. In her article, details of the workshop were elaborated upon, including the names of the instructors: Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a former pollster for the federal Conservatives, now the Principal Secretary to Premier Christy Clark; Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis of Campaign Research, both long-term Conservative party operatives; and Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Harper’s former director of communications, and the main booster for Fox North TV. 

    Following the media exposure, both Fryer and the Observer received libel threats. Fryer was asked by a Campaign Research lawyer to publish a letter saying his comments were not intended to suggest that “Mr Couvalis, Mr Ciano or Campaign Research provided, discussed or made suggestions to participants regarding any illegal or unethical campaign or election tactics,” which he did. The Observer was asked to print disclaimers throughout its article, which they did. Fryer declined to speak with me.

    When Manning Centre for Building Democracy was asked for its response to Fryer’s comments, Director of Com-munications Olivier Ballou stated that Fryer’s retraction letter spoke to the issue. But Pullman says, “Focusing on Fryer’s apology letter to the instructors misses the point. As I wrote in the article, it was the attendees who discussed using the methods that were being taught to make misleading phone calls.” The Manning Centre’s Ballou countered that no other attendees seemed to be corroborating Fryer’s story. According to a list of those who attended obtained by Pullman, most attendees were from federal conservative campaign teams in local ridings, such as those for Troy de Souza and Patrick Hunt of Juan de Fuca and Victoria. In an interview, Hunt denied there was any reference to voter suppression during the course. Preston  Manning, in a recent speech, stated: “Any political strategy, tactic, or technology which deliberately employs a lie to misdirect or mislead a voter is deplorable ethically and for the damage it does to the democratic process and public confidence in all parties and politicians.”

    But Hugh Kruzel, an independent municipal candidate from Victoria who attended the Delta Ocean Pointe campaign school says, “By and large I swallowed some of the kool aid about what the potential lessons learned from the US were, but it didn’t have any sticking power for me. If I heard something that I would never be involved in, I got up and had a coffee. Ethically, I would rather get out the vote than work to ensure other voices are snuffed. Can I remember exactly discussions about voter suppression? I believe some of that was discussed, even at the round table level.” 


    The Manning Centre and oil

    So what is the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and who funds it? Started in 2005 by Preston Manning, its website says it’s “a national not-for-profit organization supporting research, educational, and communications initiatives designed to achieve a more democratic society in Canada guided by conservative principles.” 

    Manning’s Ballou says “private donations” fund the organization. However, Preston Manning’s own speeches on the website identify some of these “private donors” including Canadian Natural Resources, Shell Canada, Spectra Energy, and TransCanada among others—large publicly-traded oil sector companies. 

    One private donor identified is Gwyn Morgan. Morgan, in addition to his long affiliation with EnCana, is a colleague of and former fundraiser for Harper and the Conservative Party, advisor to Premier Christy Clark, and chair of the board of SNC Lavalin. SNC Lavalin is currently negotiating the purchase of the nationally-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) who make Candu reactors. Nuclear energy has long been proposed as a key future power source for the bitumen extraction process. The Harper Record (published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) notes that AECL is working with Shell to explore nuclear potential in the tar sands. 

    Other directors of the Manning Centre include Chairman Cliff Fryers (no relation to John Fryer) a tax litigator, general counsel for Mobil Oil Canada Ltd, governor of the Canadian Tax Foundation and a director of the Canadian Petroleum Tax Society; and secretary and treasurer Blair Nixon, tax counsel to a number of natural resources companies.

    The connection between the interests of oil companies and the Manning Centre is clear. The connection between the Manning Centre and activities which would lead to electoral fraud are becoming clear.

    The result of such connections to, and funding from, oil companies for the Manning Centre—and other such organizations—is a skewed democracy in which petrodollars help elect politicians, usually Conservative, that are oil-patch-friendly. This can happen directly or indirectly, with oil revenue funding politicians or institutions that  work to create an oil-friendly culture. The power of big oil to influence public policy in the area of climate change has been well documented by such watchdog groups as DeSmogBlog, who have been tracking the financing of fake science institutes that deny climate change and obfuscate policy. And Morgan himself gave Harper’s old advocacy group, the National Citizen’s Coalition, $20,000 for fighting Stephane Dion’s carbon tax plan prior to the 2008 election. 

    The aim is to get and keep Conservatives in power, preferably with a majority.


    The Alberta experience

    Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-winning journalist and author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent and a long-standing critic of Albertan petrostate politics (where the Conservative party has been in power for over 40 years) says, “A government that has access to the enormous stores of hydrocarbons can use the money to manipulate the process and keep themselves in power, and that means subverting the election process and undermining the electoral institutions.” He goes on to describe the various ways in which oil revenue lubricates the subversion process. “First there is the ability of a government running on oil revenue with no savings plan to cover up mistakes, bribe citizens and institutions, lower taxes and fund expensive infrastructure programs to win votes.”

    He also suggests: “There are no institutional watchdogs in petrostates, they only appoint puppies.” The non-puppies tend to get fired, Nikiforuk says, recounting the case of Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer Lorne Gibson. In 2007, Winnipeg-born Gibson made his first mistake by recommending charges in nine cases of illegal electoral funding where schools and municipalities had funded the Conservative Party, all of which were curiously dropped. 

    In 2008, Gibson followed up after the provincial election with a scathing report documenting election irregularities. These included a lack of impartiality by the governing Conservative Party in appointing large numbers of electoral returning officers having ties to the Conservatives. Gibson’s report described tactics used to appoint electoral officers, which were sometimes delayed until the day before the election, thus preventing a quarter of Alberta’s voters from getting pre-registered. The ensuing delays, confusion, jammed websites and other voter suppression tactics were well documented in Gibson’s report. 

    He made extensive recommendations for electoral reform and then was promptly fired for his efforts by a legislative committee stacked with Conservatives. 

    Subsequent to Gibson’s firing, Paula Simons, a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, wrote: “The sequence of events sends a terrible message to other independent legislative officers, such as the auditor general, the information and privacy commissioner, the ethics commissioner and the ombudsman. Are they to understand that they too might lose their appointments if they criticize and embarrass the government?” 

    Gibson is currently in court appealing wrongful dismissal. 

    Nikiforuk notes, “That culture of bending the rules has expanded beyond the borders of Alberta now into the rest of Canada with the petrostate party winning its federal majority.”


    Ground Zero: Saanich–Gulf Islands

    Locally, Saanich–Gulf Islands’ residents have experienced at least two elections in which irregularities occurred. Viewed as a swing riding in both the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, it was targeted by robocalls apparently trying to suppress the vote for non-Conservative candidates. 

    As the Liberal candidate in the 2008 election, I have personal experience with questionable third-party funding and robocalls.

    Gary Lunn, Harper’s then-Minister of Natural Resources, was the incumbent. The riding’s strategic location at the edge of the Pacific put it at the heart of the national debate on whether bitumen could be safely distributed from our shores via pipelines and tankers. Lunn’s campaign was well supported by the oil patch gang, including Gwyn Morgan, who chose to retire in the area and whose wife headed a third-party advertiser (she also sits on the Council of Advisors for the Manning Centre).

    There were five such third-party organizations registered to support Lunn in that election, four of whom had the same address—a law office under the name of lawyer Bruce Hallsor. Hallsor is a prominent Conservative operative. A former member of the BC Chief Electoral Officer’s Advisory Committee, vice-president of the Conservatives’ Saanich–Gulf Islands Electoral District Association, and former director of Fair Voting BC, he was also named in Election Canada’s investigation of a so-called “in-and-out scheme” in his capacity as co-chair of the Conservative campaigns in BC in 2006. 

    The in-and-out scheme was an illegal mechanism whereby the Conservative Party shifted national advertising money in and out of local riding campaign accounts in order to claim it as local spending. On March 12, 2012 the Conservatives lost their federal court appeal and were found guilty of illegal election financing during the 2006 election. They were fined $52,000 although they exceeded spending limits by $1.3 million.

    In the 2008 election, third-party advertisers—each allowed to spend $3666—flooded the Saanich–Gulf Islands riding with pro-Conservative ads. Under the Canada Elections Act such advertising could only come from third- party groups that were at “arm’s length” from campaign workers. But at a meeting convened by Elections Canada officials prior to the election for all candidates, their managers, agents and riding association presidents, Hallsor was sitting next to his Conservative candidate. It’s also illegal to split one third-party group into multiple organizations to increase funding, yet four third-party advertisers shared Halsor’s law office address.

    Besides the ad expenditures, on the eve of the election a robocall went out to thousands of NDP supporters, purporting to be from Progressive Voters Association of Saanich–Gulf Islands, urging them to vote for the NDP candidate. No mention was made in the call that the candidate had stepped down, or that his withdrawal had been too late to have his name removed from the ballot. In effect, it split the progressive vote enough for Lunn to win the seat.

    Fast forward to the 2011 election. Saanich–Gulf Islands was again viewed as a close race and complaints of robocalls aiming to suppress the vote were again heard. The Green Party’s leader Elizabeth May, who defeated Lunn, has called the robocall scandal “a genuine emergency with regard to the essential integrity of our democratic institutions,” and called (unsuccessfully) for an emergency debate on the matter.

    Local political support for a pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the coast, and for tankers to transport bitumen through hazardous narrow passages along BC’s coast, has come solely from the Conservatives. In both recent Saanich–Gulf Islands’ elections, the Northern Gateway pipeline had been a central campaign issue. The very first public demonstration—ever—in Sidney was held to protest the northern Gateway pipeline. It was supported by Liberals, Greens and the NDP—as was the moratorium on tanker traffic on the northern coast. With a Conservative minority government, there was no way the pipeline was ever going to fly. But a majority government would be a game changer. The oil could flow. 

    Jim Harris, writing for Huffington Post, claims, “Harper won his ‘majority’ with 6848 votes. That’s the difference between a Conservative candidate getting elected and the second-place candidate in the 14 closest races that the Conservatives ‘won.’”


    Can Elections Canada be trusted?

    Elections Canada is now combing through at least 700 individual complaints (31,000 counting those sent through internet forms organized by advocacy groups) in dozens of ridings stemming from the current robocall scandal.

    The experience in Saanich–Gulf Islands does not inspire confidence that Elections Canada will get to the bottom (or top) of who misled citizens about polling stations in an effort to suppress non-Conservative votes. 

    After the 2008 election, both Liberal and NDP Saanich–Gulf Islands riding associations sent a complaint package to Elections Canada about the irregularities. On March 2, 2009, Elections Canada responded: “Our investigator found no one who had actually been influenced in their vote because of the purported telephone call. Nor was he able to identify the source of the person or persons who actually made the calls. As a result of the foregoing, our investigation has now been concluded.” With regard to the third-party advertisers, they wrote “it is within the discretion of the Political Financing and Audit Directorate to refer the matter to the Commissioner for his consideration.” As far as I know, no follow-up ever took place. 

    After the 2008 experience, it was clear where all this would lead. Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch saw evidence of collusion between  third-party groups. He said, “If they are allowed to get away with this [in Saanich–Gulf Islands] what happens if there’s a case where the candidate is still there? Someone could do bulk calling on behalf of whichever candidate you think will split your candidate’s vote.”

    Conacher had completed an analysis of Election Canada’s enforcement since 2004 “revealing that the main problem is no one can tell whether Elections Canada has been enforcing the law fairly and properly because it has failed to report details of how it has investigated and ruled on 2284 complaints in the past years.”

    In 2009, Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative, a public-interest non-profit that has been lobbying against oil tankers on the coast, wrote “If someone with subpoena powers doesn’t step up with some investigative muscle, I predict many more Karl-Rove-like black-op operations in future elections.”  

    Given the Saanich experience, and Alberta’s record before that, is there any reason to be confident Stephen Harper’s Conservative government will not interfere with Elections Canada as they try to investigate the robocall scandal? Will the details be made available? Will the scandal be contained by making “Pierre Poutine” the fall guy? Where is the deeper analysis in the corporate media of the structural erosion of the country’s democratic processes? And who is tracking the oil money lubricating the decline?

    These are all question that need to be answered, and soon. Andrew Nikiforuk considers this a political emergency for the country. “Once petrostates seize power, the bar is lowered on everything and it is very difficult to raise it back up.” He cites eroding labour health and safety standards like that which led to two Chinese temporary workers being crushed to death at the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon project. Chinese company Sinopec is appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn a ruling that would force CNRH to stand trial for the deaths and face 53 safety charges. 

    This November— if Harper doesn’t stop the process prematurely—the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project will be in Victoria to hear appellants’ comments on the pipeline. Two of the panel are from Calgary and the third is a manager of a mineral exploration company out of Ontario. Given the money at stake and the way petrodollars are subverting democracy, it’s hard to have much confidence that the panel will be free of political interference. Andrew Nikiforuk warns, “Petrostates won’t tolerate any kind of democratic intervention, as they see it as a threat to their power.”

    But as citizens, we have to try, don’t we?

    Briony Penn, PhD, is a fifth-generation Vancouver Islander, artist, journalist, environmental educator and mother who believes the rising petrostate is an emergency for both democracy and the planet.

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