Healthcare telephone poll sets off a firestorm before Alberta Election

Merit Alberta and the Wildrose Party have filed complaints with government officials claiming that the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is violating election rules with a province-wide telephone poll.

"AFL President Gil McGowan is leaving robocall messages attacking the health care policies of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance parties," said Merit Contractors Association president Stephen Kushner.

"This is clearly political advertising, yet the AFL is not registered as a third party advertiser as required under the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act."

The AFL conducted an automated telephone poll that called about 1.5 million households or every number in the Alberta phone book from April 17-18.

"It wasn't a political advertisement, it was a political poll," said McGowan.

"I find it ironic that the complaint was made by the Wildrose party, which purports to stand for freedom of speech. I guess this only applies to people who want to talk about gays and lesbians falling into a lake of fire, or people who say Caucasians are better suited for leadership positions than people of colour or climate change deniers, but not to medicare."

He was referring to comments made by some Wildrose Party candidates in the lead up to the election.

When someone in a household answered their phone, the automated poll asked them to participate in a political survey or poll.

If the call went to an answering machine, McGowan left a message that said unions have been at the forefront of the fight to build medicare and protect it from those who want privatize it for profit.

"If you care about medicare, Wildrose is not the answer," he said in the message.

"Their spending promises can only be advanced with major cuts to healthcare and education. Please don't support a party that would destroy medicare as we know it."

Both Merit and the Wildrose Party argue that this telephone poll is a form of third party political advertisement, so the AFL should have registered with Elections Alberta. Violators of the law can face fines of up to $100,000 in court.

"This is yet another example of union leaders spending mandatory union dues on advertising and political agendas that are likely not shared by their members at large," said Kushner.

In response to McGowans claims about medicare, the Wildrose Party said it supports the public health care system and has no plans to have it privatized.

According to McGowan, however, Wildrose is committed to using public funds as seed money to facilitate the growth of corporate for-profit care.

Elections Alberta is investigating the provincial telephone calls after receiving numerous complaints.

"We are not the only group out there using this technology, but we are one of the few that make it clear who is doing the phoning," said McGowan. "We wanted to tell people, who is delivering the message and we have nothing to hide."

In 2008, the Progressive Conservative government legislated a gag order to stop organizations such as the AFL — who represent several unions and employee associations — from advertising during a provincial election.

During the 2008 provincial election, the Alberta Building Trades Council and the AFL sponsored a campaign, which questioned the leadership abilities of Progressive Conservative leader Ed Stelmach.

The AFL then launched a second campaign, which sent 130,000 homes direct mail with the message that the Progressive Conservatives lack direction on oil patch development and the environment.

In response, the National Citizens Coalition and Merit Alberta launched a counter attack, which said unions are forcing workers to contribute to political ad campaigns and are using their dues to finance non-workplace activities.

Union leaders did not disclose the cost of their campaign, but is has been reported that the cost was about $2.5 million for prime-time TV spots, full-page newspaper ads and direct mail.

Some Wildrose Party members have been making waves in the lead up to the provincial election.

A year-old blog post recently surfaced from Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger, who is running in Edmonton-Southwest. Hunsperger wrote in the blog that gays and lesbians would end up in an eternal lake of fire, if they didn't change their sexual orientation. He also characterized the public education system as godless and criticized the Edmonton Public School Board's policy of protecting sexual minorities from bullying.

Ron Leech, who is running for the Wildrose in Calgary-Greenway, said on a Calgary radio show that he had an advantage in the election race because he is Caucasian.

Journal of Commerce, Mon Apr 23 2012
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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