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Perception, reality of nonpartisanship

The View From Here
Column by Alan Pickersgill

I was going to stay out of the latest Tory tempest in a teapot, but after reading last Saturday’s Mercury I find myself drawn in.

I am, as the current police jargon would put it, a person of interest in the case. I am not, nor is Cole Road Housing Co-op, the organization I work for, a member of either the Conservative Party or the Guelph Chamber of Commerce. Yet our co-op received an e-mail solicitation to check out the local Conservative website and learn more about whatever it is they are up to these days.

When we got it, I sent a note to Lloyd Longfield, the chamber president, telling him I didn’t think it was an appropriate use of their resources. I don’t doubt many of its members are probably Conservative Party supporters. Others might favour the Liberals, Greens or NDP.

If the chamber is going to organize all-candidate meetings during elections, Longfield must strictly guard its nonpartisan nature.

At first I was happy to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and let it drop. A keen member of both the chamber and the Conservatives, I thought, got an e-mail from the riding association and forwarded it on to other chamber contacts. I was wrong. Saturday’s paper had both a front page article about the debacle and an op-ed column signed by Steve Vos, president of the Guelph Conservative Electoral District Association. Vos is quoted extensively in the news article. The e-mail was sent by him.

The trouble is that he said one thing to the Mercury reporter and a different thing in his column. “I have a very diligent communications director,” Vos told reporter Joanne Shuttleworth, “and he manually went through the (chamber’s) directory booklet for the e-mail information. He did it by hand … this took a lot of time and effort.” If this is true, why would he hand-pick the e-mail address for a business that does not belong to the chamber and address us as “fellow GCC member”?

Having said that on page 1, Vos says on page 7 the Conservatives used “a chamber mailing list to send out our e-mail” and were completely within their rights as a chamber member. This sounds more like the truth. A few years ago some representatives of the co-op took part in a chamber event. They got our e-mail address and began sending us messages. They were fairly benign, but not relevant to our business.

We asked to be taken off the mailing list, and the volume dropped dramatically. It’s hard to fully purge these lists, and we still get an occasional message. They are easily handled with the delete key. It is impossible for me to believe that someone went through this list and manually selected our co-op.

A couple of questions spring to mind. The local Conservatives are still trying to recover from the robocall scandal in which it was alleged they harvested names and contact information from databases that didn’t belong to them. Now they admit to doing it again. When will they ever learn?

The Chamber of Commerce is an umbrella organization for businesses that operate locally, selling goods and services to local consumers. A political party is not a commercial enterprise. I know the local NDP riding association does not belong to the chamber. We now know the Conservatives do. None of them should.

When the chamber hosts an all-candidate meeting in 2015, none of the candidates should be representing a member organization. Being nonpartisan is about perception as much as reality. At the moment the optics are horrible, because local Conservatives can’t stop creating political mischief.

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