Caveat emptor. Buyer beware

You might be thinking of acquiring a new widget or re-acquiring an old city councillor. In either event, you are responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods or services before making up your mind. If you make the wrong decision, you have no one to blame but yourself. It’s called caveat emptor: buyer beware.

One thing to look out for is false information. These days it has been branded, by the American president, as “fake news” but it’s not news. It isn’t even new. Reduced down to a four-letter word, “misinformation” becomes “lies”. Nothing more, nothing less. It has been part of our political fabric for a very long time. Even here in Guelph.

Think back to the 2011 federal election. Some local Conservative Party operatives engineered what came to be known as the robocall scandal. They set up an automatic phone calling program to tell known supporters of other candidates that their polling station had changed location. It didn’t affect the outcome of the vote, but that wasn’t their fault. They made a valiant effort. Valiant, but not very bright. What they might have seen in the moment as a clever prank captured the attention of Elections Canada and put Michael Sona on the wrong side of a jail cell.

That wasn’t the first time fake news sideswiped a Guelph election. It also happened during the 2003 city council election. Karen Farbridge, the incumbent mayor, faced a vigorous conservative challenge. Newcomer Kate Quarrie ran against her with the support of pro-development candidates in all six city wards.

With one week left in the campaign, Quarrie and Ward 6 council candidate Peter Hamtak revealed what they characterized as the city’s public and hidden capital spending budgets. Their joint press conference dropped a bombshell of false information on the city. The timing was well thought out.

The city administration and the incumbent councillors did not have time to counteract with the truth. The ruse helped both Quarrie and Hamtak. They were elected to their one and only term on city council. As often happens in politics, perception trumped reality.

How they did it was simple. On the Monday before the vote Quarrie and Hamtak held a press conference. They said they had just discovered there were two different capital budgets in play.

They characterized one as the “public” budget, the one Mayor Farbridge and city administrator David Creech wanted us to see. It projected a $31 million debt.

The other one, the “hidden” budget that Farbridge and Creech allegedly didn’t want us to know about, put the debt at $60 million.

Long story short, the $31 million document listed only Council-approved projects. The other one was a “blue sky” listing of everything the city was looking at.

No one was hiding anything, and Hamtak knew it. Or he would have if he had bothered to walk into Creech’s office and ask the question.

It was misinformation presented as fact. Now Hamtak is a Ward 4 candidate in October. Caveat emptor, my friends. Caveat emptor.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Alan. I think he expects us to forget (or at least forgive) that episode. Not likely.

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