In the last few weeks, there have been two separate but important steps forward in the case of fraudulent robocalls used to mislead voters in the last federal election.
One was the laying of a charge against Conservative campaign worker Michael Sona, whose lawyer promptly released a statement saying that Sona was hardly in a position to have either the resources or access necessary to have launched the robo- campaign.
The second, somewhat quieter step, was the release by Elections Canada of a report calling for urgent elections legislation to allow the agency to stop any future robocalls abuse, saying, in part, "Both the measures and the recommendations are based on the view that, first and foremost, the focus must be on preventing this kind of conduct from occurring. ... The ability to do so is essential to preserving confidence in electoral democracy and can only be achieved with the appropriate legislative tools."
The report argued for strengthened elections legislation, broader powers and heftier penalties - it also argues that existing privacy legislation should be extended to political parties, so that the masses of information they collect on voters are at least as stringently protected and limited as records kept by direct marketers.
And buried deep inside is this absolutely chilling nugget: "(In) the case of the Guelph investigation into misleading robocalls, the publicly available court records show that at least three individuals believed to have key information refused to speak with investigators. The inability to compel testimony has been one of the most significant obstacles to effective enforcement of the Act."
That's right: despite all of the Conservatives' talk about getting to the bottom of the Robocalls issue, several people involved in the case simply refused to co-operate or be interviewed. And there's absolutely nothing Elections Canada can do about that.
The agency's recommendation on that front is pretty clear: "In order to make the enforcement of the Canada Elections Act more effective, it is recommended that the Commissioner of Canada Elections be given the power to apply to a judge for an order to compel any person to provide information that is relevant to an investigation."
And it's not open season, either: "Prior to obtaining such an order, the commissioner would have to satisfy a judge, on the basis of affidavit evidence, that an investigation is taking place and that the person to be examined has or is likely to have information that is directly relevant to the investigation. In all cases, information so obtained could not be used in support of a prosecution against the person who was required to provide it, except where the person has intentionally provided misleading evidence."
It is probably alarming to a good number of Canadians to realize that, in a case like the robocalls issue, individuals involved can simply walk away from dealing with investigators looking into significant election tampering.
If nothing else changes, that certainly should. Protecting the democratic process is too important to be sidelined by self-serving silence.