March 3, 2012 00:03:00
Linda Diebel National Affairs Writer
Fourteen Conservative MPs signed on with a well-connected Republican company during last year’s election campaign, contrary to the party’s claims, the Star has learned.
On its website, Front Porch Strategies, a “voter contact and constituency outreach” firm based in Columbus, Ohio, boasts: “In May’s federal elections, Front Porch Strategies won all 14 of their races.”
Among their clients was Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro who, on Thursday, led the charge in the Commons over the voter dirty tricks scandal, accusing Liberals and notably Eglinton—Lawrence MP Joe Volpe of paying over $25,000 to a calling company with offices in North Dakota.
Added Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “We’ve done some checking. We’ve only found that, in fact, it was the Liberal party that did source its phone calls from the United States.”
In an interview with the Star, Del Mastro backed down on the North Dakota allegation — for which he apologized to reporters — and said: “Nobody is saying there’s anything wrong with the use of U.S. firms.”
After a raucous week in Parliament, Elections Canada confirmed Friday morning that it has received 31,000 complaints from Canadians about misleading and harassing calls since Monday.
Del Mastro praised Front Porch and said the company was very effective in running teleforums — Internet or phone-powered focus groups — in his riding.
But one of his Front Porch events got messy. On March 23, 2011, the day after the budget, a teleforum involving over 5,000 households, turned nasty when several supposedly screened callers launched a “smear campaign” against then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, according to Liberal candidate Betsy McGregor.
“It was billed as a forum to discuss the budget but it seemed to me like an exercise in voter identification — and that’s not right,” she said from Peterborough. “He would have been 100 per cent certain Harper was going to call the election in three days so it was for electioneering purposes.”
McGregor recalled one caller falsely claimed Ignatieff wasn’t even Canadian and accused former Liberal governments of sending Canadians into battle in Afghanistan without flak jackets.
“I would just ask why not use a Canadian company? I think the people of Peterborough would be really astonished to know how our MP had to import U.S. services to win our election.” she said.
It’s not clear whether Front Porch stuck to teleforum work or handled other types of voter outreach — such as robo-calling — for its 14 Conservative clients. According to Elections Canada expense returns, they also included: Northumberland MP Rick Norlock, Rick Dykstra from St. Catharines, Brant’s Phil McColeman, Dean Allison from Niagara West—Glanbrook and Parm Gill from Brampton-Springdale.
The company’s website notes it has worked for the Conservative caucus as well as MPs.
PJ Wenzel, a partner in the firm, didn’t return Star phone calls. There’s an excerpt on his voicemail from former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall speech,” from the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall in 1988. He urged then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate.”
Veteran political operative Jim Ross, a former Dykstra staffer hired as a consultant for Canadian operations by Front Porch, said the company doesn’t release information on clients or the type of work done. Over the past year, Front Porch also hired Erin Wall, a former communications adviser to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, as an associate.
Front Porch has worked for the top echelons of the Republican Party, including George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, Mitt Romney during his bid for the 2008 nomination and the Republican National Committee. The firm has been especially active in trying to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that ensures a woman’s right to abortion.
In an interview, Duff Conacher, on the board of Democracy Watch, said American companies shouldn’t be involved in Canadian elections. “It’s legal to engage the services of anyone you want during an election campaign but it’s very disturbing to see the Conservative Party using companies with these kinds of partisan (Republican) ties.”
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, whose St. Paul riding saw tires slashed, brake lines cut and lawn signs taken down in the last two federal elections, told the Star she opposes the idea of using foreign companies because “if there were to be transgression, we don’t have the same resources to go after them as we do with Canadian firms.
“It bugs me. It just doesn’t seem right. It’s our country, our voters and our election.”
The Conservatives have outstripped other parties over the past decade in fundraising and honing its political machine. The party effectively uses the resources of the powerful Conservative global organization, the International Democratic Union (IDU), a coalition of member parties including the U.S. Republicans, the Canadian and U.K. Conservative parties and, in the Australia, the centre-right Liberals.
The Harper team has been adept at learning from election technology seminars from other countries using IDU — called “off-shoring” — and keeping its people in prominent positions within the organization. In a legendary example, strategist Patrick Muttart adopted voter identification techniques from Howard in Australia that included breaking voters into tight little groups to target them on campaign drives.
Currently, Senator Doug Finley, Harper’s former campaign director is a deputy chair at IDU. Charges under the Elections Canada Act against Finley and Senator Irving Gerstein were dropped last year, but the party was found guilty and fined $52,000 for overspending in the “in-and-out” scandal, in which riding funds were funnelled into national advertising.
Fred DeLorey, the party’s director of communications who on Thursday accused Liberals of hiring U.S. firms, called the ruling: “a big victory for the Conservative Party of Canada.”
A Liberal analyst who spoke on background said that nobody should think the Liberals are virtuous. Rather, he said: “There has been a global revolution that has transformed every aspect of politics in the last five years. The Conservatives know how to take technologies from other parties in other countries — ‘offshoring’ — and they do it better than anybody else. The problem is I don’t think Elections Canada can keep up.”
Ron Shaiko, a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Centre at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, tracks get-out-vote techniques as well as “voter suppression” in the U.S.
“In the U.S. the people who work to suppress voter turnout are the Republicans for a simple reason,’ he said. “Historically, the lower the turnout, the better it is for Republicans. High turnout means Democratic wins.”