Not planning to vote Conservative? The Tories still want to know all about you
In the wake of the robo-call scandal, John Fryer penned a letter to major newspapers describing his experience attending at the Conservative-aligned Manning Centre for Democracy Campaign School. Here's a deeper look at the key players at his training.
In 2010, John Fryer, a member of the Order of Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, attended a campaign school training offered by the Conservative-aligned Manning Centre for Democracy. Last week, as news of the robo-call scandal spread across Canada, he was driven to pen a letter to the editor of major Canadian newspapers about the nature of this training.
The $249 two-day intensive training program took place from January 22-24, 2010, at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort. The event description on the Manning Centre's website read: "With the potential of an election this spring, the skills you learn at this school can make the difference between winning and losing".
The training was dubbed "the most comprehensive campaign manager training ever delivered in Canada" by its organizers, and promised to deliver "the knowledge and skills it takes to win" from "some of the most experienced campaign managers in the country".
Roughly 35 people attended the Manning training. According to Fryer, many of the attendees were attracted to the training to help defeat Liberal incumbent MP Keith Martin in Esquimalt Juan De Fuca. The event’s star-studded slate of speakers included former Press Secretary to Stephen Harper (and current President of Sun Media) Kory Teneycke and David Akin, the National Bureau Chief for Sun Media.
Other headliners were Stephen Taylor, founder of the Blogging Tories, and Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a former pollster for the federal Conservatives, the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party who is now the Principal Secretary to Premier Christy Clark.
The school was organized by Fraser McDonald of the Manning Centre in addition to Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis. Both are founding members of Campaign Research, established in 2003.
What is Campaign Research?
Campaign Research does voter identification and market research for the Conservative Party of Canada. The agency made news in December when they placed misleading phone calls to Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s constituents in an apparent attempt to identify likely Conservative and non-Conservative voters in that riding. The calls falsely claimed that he would resign his seat and then asked the constituents who they would support in the by-election that would follow.
When Colter then raised concerns about the ethics of the misleading phone calls in the House of Commons, Conservative MPs dismissed his concerns by claiming that the misleading phone calls were a protected form of free speech.
Ciano and Kouvalis have been key figures in the rise of Canada’s right-wing campaigning machinery.
Ciano became the national vice-president of the Conservative Party of Canada from its founding convention in 2005 until 2008.
His profile on the Campaign Research website, a profile that has since been deleted, states that he was a successful campaign manager for a Conservative MP Peter Van Loan in the 2004 federal general election. He's currently running for election as president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Ciano was also a member of the national Conservative Party’s governing council, serving Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the party was in transition from Official Opposition to government following the 2006 federal election .
Kouvalis, meanwhile, is described by the Manning Centre website as a “campaign strategist with experience in voter profiling, telephone town halls, auto-dialing, telemarketing, direct mail, websites, and social media.” He is credited for having “worked closely with many key Ontario ridings that cement the Conservative majority” during the last election.
“We’re in the business of getting Conservatives elected and ending Liberal careers. We’re good at it,” Kouvalis told Maclean's magazine, in response to complaints last year about his company's phone calls in the Mount Royal riding.
Kouvalis developed the first virtual “at home” call centre in 2006, and his business was merged with Campaign Research Inc. in 2008. He was Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s Deputy Campaign manager and chief of staff. His wife, Amber-Joy, runs the virtual call centre that Campaign Research used to call voters for Conservatives during the federal election.
During Fryer’s first day of the training, Ciano and Kouvalis led a session about the mechanics of winning elections, Freyer said. Voter identification was at the core of this conversation. A key task to win an election, according to Ciano and Kouvalis, is to identify your supporters, nurture them, and ensure they get out the vote. Attendees were told about staying in touch with your voters, and informed of the services that Campaign Research offers.
Fryer recalled that in the training, instructors stressed the importance of identifying and keeping track of non-supporters. The key to victory, they said, was ensuring more of your supporters turn out to vote than theirs. In the question and answer period that following this session, some attendees discussed using robo-calling services to contact non-supporters.
Ciano, Fryer explained, gave detailed explanation of how robo-calls work, as well as techniques for recording messages, and the costs involved. He then discussed the merits of robo-calling: in addition to being inexpensive, they give the campaign manager total control of the message. Campaign Research could even write your script if you didn’t want to do it yourself.
The conversation that followed was deeply disturbing to Fryer. In a question and answer session, some attendees discussed voter suppression tactics. Attendees talked about posing as a member of another party, and about making rude calls at inconvenient times as a strategy to get the supporter of another party to not go out and vote for their candidate. Neither Ciano, Kouvalis or Campaign Research were part of these discussions, according to Fryer's recollections.
According to Fryer, "the mood of the meeting was that this is war and that anything goes." He does not recall that attitude being condoned by Ciano, Kouvalis or Campaign Research.
He clarified that the program was not focused on robo-calls: day one, he said, was mainly about identifying supporters, while day two was about identifying non-supporters. Robo-calls were just one of many topics discussed, he said, but they were being discussed as "normal" tactics to win an election. It is important to note that many robo-calls are perfectly legal and Mr. Fryer is not suggesting that Ciano, Kouvalis or Campaign Research were advocating the illegal or unethical form of robo-calls.
Attendees left the session with Ciano’s business card in hand. Without a list of attendees, it is difficult to know who hired his company's services, but it is clear that Campaign Research did well for themselves in the last election. In 39 ridings, Campaign Research did $389,890 worth of business. Of the 39 ridings, there are reports of at least 10 where allegations of fraud occurred.
A brief scan of campaign spending during the 2011 election from Elections Canada shows that Dean Del Mastro, MP for Peterborough paid Campaign Research $22,120.60, while Peter Braid, the MP for Kitchener-Waterloo, paid $19,120.00. Kellie Leitch from Simcoe-Grey paid a total of $21,315.19. Vancouver Quadra candidate Deborah Meredith paid $13,582.85, and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca candidate Troy DeSouza
paid Campaign Research a total $8,144. The list goes on.
Elections Canada’s robo-call election fraud investigation has already spread to include RackNine Inc. and Responsive Marketing Group. It does not yet include Campaign Research.
Reflecting upon his experience at the training. Fryer notes:“I’ve been around politics a long time, and this is just a different place.”
Campaign Research asserts that Ciano and Kouvalis did not lead a joint session, at the time of the conference Ciano was working for the Manning Center, not Campaign Research, they did not offer instruction on robo-calls and did not offer the service until January 2011, and that no one representing Campaign Research discussed, promoted or suggested voter suppression tactics.