Conservative Party of Canada membership lists in Prince George contain scores of names of people who didn’t even know they were members, according to sources within the party.
The Cariboo-Prince George riding association was boasting last week that it had the largest number of members in the country, with 4,743. But those numbers may be artificially inflated.
A source working in the campaign to elect Williams Lake dentist Elmer Thiessen said the Dick Harris campaign has been signing people up and paying their $10 membership fee without their knowledge.
Harris denied any wrongdoing in what he admits has been an “aggressive” membership drive.
“That would never happen. We would never sign anyone up who didn’t know they were signing up to support Dick Harris,” said the Prince George-Bulkley Valley MP.
“I’m not saying the system is infallible. When you sign up 3,000 people in a five-month period using well over 100 volunteers, you just assume everything’s going right.”
The source, who asked not to be identified, said a phone poll of names on Conservative membership lists revealed over 100 people out of 350 who denied any knowledge that they were members.
The source contended the Harris campaign used three strategies to obtain people’s names and addresses in order to sign them up. They either did business with Harris’s Prince George constituency office, they agreed to have Harris’s office send part information, or they signed a petition to “keep the MP’s office in Prince George.”
Each of the three recruitment methods was confirmed by at least one person contacted by the Free Press.
“Dick Harris was here in Vanderhoof to sign up memberships,” said Ernie Moe, a Vanderhoof resident who has since been contacted by both candidates’ campaign teams.
“He asked me what party I was supporting and I told him I’ve been supporting the [Alliance] for the past few years. He says, Would you like to join? I said, No, I don’t join no party, I make my decision when it comes time to vote.”
Nonetheless, Moe said he gave Harris his name and address so that he could send out a brochure with information on Conservative Party policies.
When he received the brochure, he was also informed that “the membership fee is $10, but I was already a member so I don’t have to pay the $10.”
Harris said he was in Vanderhoof campaigning recently. But he denied taking addresses for any purpose other than to sign new members up, and only with their knowledge.
Another Vanderhoof resident said the only contact she had with Harris or the Conservative Party was when she signed a petition at the Co-Op Mall.
Shirley Parker said she was told by the campaigner only that she should sign the petition in order to keep the MP’s constituency office in Prince George or risk seeing it moved to Williams Lake.
Parker said she has never been a member of a political party, nor has she voted Canadian Alliance or Conservative. Yet her name shows up on the party’s membership lists.
“I wasn’t told that by signing this you’re representing the Alliance-Conservative party. I’ve never paid a membership fee. I haven’t decided who I’m voting for, but I don’t like the Conservative message.”
Vanderhoof residents Helen and Clifford Niessen also confirmed they were told they are party members. They have never held memberships in any political party, said Helen. And they don’t know how their names got on the list.
Two Prince George businessmen whose names also appear on the membership list denied any knowledge of signing up. Neither has any political affiliation. The only contact they have had with Harris is when they made a business call to his constituency office.
Harris acknowledged his campaign team has found members who didn’t know they had been signed up.
But he said it was a case of “miscommunication,” usually when a spouse volunteered their partner’s name for membership without asking them first.
None of the 30 to 40 people discovered so far has asked to be removed from the list, said Harris.
“There is absolutely no way that I would condone any signing up of anyone that didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I’ve got every assurance from my membership campaign manager that everything was done within the rules.”
The rules around who could sign members up appear to have been fairly loose until recently.
For one, third party payments of membership fees was allowed. For another, campaign workers could “get memberships over the phone, [they] could get memberships by yelling across the hockey arena. As long as someone says, Yeah, you bet, I support Dick,’ said Harris.
“I think the problem is [Thiessen] didn’t really understand the latitude of the rules and he’s seen the numbers that we’ve put together and he’s thinking maybe he should have known the rules a little better.”
The bottom line, said Harris, is that members signed up without their knowledge would be of little use to his campaign, since they likely won’t vote in the nomination meetings next week anyway.
The source in Thiessen’s campaign, however, suggests the strategy could pay off by getting a few voters out who might otherwise not consider it.
“They’re going to phone them right before the nomination meeting and they’re going to say, If you don’t come out and vote, Dick Harris is not going to be our MP, the office is going to move to Williams Lake.”