Conservative senators will attempt this week to block a $15,000 payment for a public-opinion poll they say is being used by independent senators to support the Liberal Party’s 2019 election campaign.
The Senate’s internal economy, budgets and administration committee is expected to decide on the matter Thursday.
The committee’s vice-chair, Conservative Senator Denise Batters, said in an interview that the Conservatives will urge the committee to send a clear message that election-related polling should not be funded out of senators’ office budgets.
Failing to reject the payment, she said, would signal a return to the institution’s old ways that led to the Senate expenses scandal. That prolonged controversy included a damning 2012 auditor-general’s report that found poor oversight of contracts approved by senators.
“It would set a terrible precedent," Ms. Batters said. “This poll has ‘election’ stamped all over it."
The poll in question was commissioned by independent senator Donna Dasko, a former professional pollster who was appointed to the Senate in June, 2018, by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Ms. Dasko told The Globe and Mail Monday that the Conservative criticisms are “absurd” and that polling is an important part of the Senate’s role in reviewing public policy.
The leader of the Independent Senators Group, Senator Yuen Pau Woo – and other independent senators – promoted Ms. Dasko’s poll results on social media after it was released in April. Specifically, Mr. Woo highlighted the poll’s finding that nearly 77 per cent of respondents said a future government should keep the new appointment process introduced by the Trudeau government, in which new senators sit as independents rather than as partisan members of the governing caucus. Mr. Woo called on party leaders to respond to those findings “in advance of the fall election” and has previously said Senate reform should be an election issue.
However the poll also produced some unflattering findings for the Senate. When asked what words came to mind when thinking of the Senate, some of the most common responses included ineffective/pointless and waste of money.
During an initial committee debate over Ms. Dasko’s poll, Senate lawyer Charles Feldman told senators last week that the rules do not allow senators to commission polls that are election-related, but that it is unclear how that rule should be interpreted. He suggested the Senate administration should be given more guidance from senators as to how such issues should be dealt with.
“Without more input on the line between electoral-related matters and partisan surveys, there is less certainty for senators and ultimately these sorts of questions will return to this committee time and again,” he said.
The Senators’ Office Management Policy says expenses must qualify as parliamentary business. The rules say parliamentary business does not include activities related to “supporting or opposing a political party or an individual candidate” in the context of a federal election. Conservative senators allege that the wording of some of Ms. Dasko’s poll questions crossed that line.
Ms. Dasko rejects that criticism and stands by her poll, which was conducted by Nanos Research.
“This is a legitimate research process,” she said. “If you don’t do this kind of research, we are missing out.”
The Senate law clerk’s office provided senators with a written briefing note on the issue. While the memo was referenced repeatedly by senators, the committee says the memo is not a public document and declined a request to provide a copy to the media.
The Independent Senators Group holds seven of the 15 seats at the committee, including the position of chair. There are six Conservatives and two independent Senate Liberals. The makeup of the committee suggests the Conservatives are unlikely to secure enough votes to block the payment, but Ms. Batters says she is holding out hope that some of the other senators will be convinced that the poll broke the rules.
Ms. Batters said that if Ms. Dasko’s poll expense is approved, it could open the door to Conservative senators using their budgets for election-related polling.
“I hope that all those on the committee will just think twice about the slippery slope that this could create," she said.