Why Michael Sona will go down alone for the robocall scandal

LAST WEEK, Liberal leader Bob Rae warned that the federal political culture of Canada is ‘entering into a kind of Nixonian moment.’ This all-thumbs assertion lacks definite substance and grip — we’re in a kind of like, you know, moment thing — but has its use. For almost a year we’ve known of the Robocall mess, media reports having been issued since election day. Now the plot, and the rot, thicken. Here I refer to the top-shelf work of Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor of Postmedia News, under our present analogy the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of this vote suppression scandal. Reviewing the evidence they’ve patiently assembled, can you now doubt a wide and active campaign of fraud in the 2011 election?

The Nixon side-glance bears its dangers and limitations. Nonetheless I’ll abuse it further by noting the departure of Michael Sona, the closest we shall likely approach the issue of consequences. His situation brings to mind the sad case of Frank Wills. You’ll recall him as the Watergate janitor-whistleblower who, in sharp contrast to Nixon and all the rest, died impoverished and unemployable. My point is, try not to harbour any getting-to-the-bottom-of-things, or even less likely the top, optimism.

On this point I am in sound company. The nearest smoking-gun comparison to the June 23, 1972 audio tape, of a meeting between Nixon and Bob Haldeman outlining their cover-up strategy, is a disposable cell phone whose Joliette number led investigators to the Edmonton call centre, RackNine. On February 23, the Toronto Star quoted Elections Canada Commissioner William Corbett from a ‘heavily redacted’ May 16 memo:

The investigation of complaints regarding web-based conduct — particularly third-party conduct — is difficult, time consuming and may be inconclusive. The same applies to telephone communications that flow through intermediaries and foreign call centres. Consequently, the dirty tricks complaints which definitely occurred may not be resolvable, if the conduct is illegal under the Act.

The calculated irresolution of this passage is thorough, seeping even into its grammar. (Read it again: what does he say ‘definitely occurred’? The dirty tricks, or the complaints of them?) Yet I can’t blame Corbett for it. Suppose a guilty party is identified, and suppose further that this party is connected to the federal Conservative leadership, of which there is at present no evidence. Even in the recent cases in which the government was found to be in breach of ethical principles and laws, out from the CPC bullpen of college-age operatives came both the spin and the scapegoat — the Alykhan Velshis and Kasra Nejatians, and so on. Under the prevailing dispensations, the charge never falls to the federal cabinet, the buck forever stopping elsewhere.

Nixon and Watergate aside, there are additional cautionary lessons. The United States, in near everything a few steps ahead of Canada, has had its own experience with robocalls. The Federal Trade Commission has imposed limits and bans on this irritating practice, in no way limited to political campaigns and the election cycle. The American legislation is however hopelessly flawed and falls well short of advancing the interests and rights of consumers and citizens. Assuming in the present case that the head of a factotum will take flight, and that business as usual will unfold along the discouraging lines described above, let us at least combat the adding of insult to injuries by urging meaningful action against the full range of these intolerable robocall abuses.

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