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Reality Check

It's your money: Ethics and government polling By Robert Sheppard, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Jan. 4, 2006 | More Reality Check

Stephen Harper takes aim at what he calls "money for nothing" contracts

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper displays a briefcase in Quebec City containing $132,000, the amount spent by the Liberal government on a specific advertising contract. (CP Photo/Paul Chiasson)

The theatre

You have to hand it to Stephen Harper. His open briefcase at a rally in Quebec City, with $132,000 in neatly stacked $10 and $20 denomination bills, takes the prize for the best bit of political theatre in a so far mostly gimmick-free campaign. It certainly tickled his audience: supporters lined up afterward to have Harper autograph their own $10 bills. (Isn't it against the law to deface legal tender? Reality Check will report back.)

In this case, the money represents the value of a consulting contract let earlier this year by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Harper said the consultant was asked to report orally on his findings and so leave no written record. The Conservative leader cited this an example of taxpayer money being spent on government insiders. He also said Canadians have no way of knowing whether they are getting good value or not because there is no paper trail to be examined by anyone not in the know.

He also insinuated this was emblematic of similar verbal contracts let by then finance minister Paul Martin to "his friends" at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in the mid-1990s. And that the Auditor General had cited this practice as a particular problem in her Gomery-era reports of 2003 and 2005.

A Conservative government, he said, would prohibit consultant reports that are only verbally delivered and would ensure that all government-sponsored public opinion research is published within six months of being completed. It would also open up the bidding process and conduct an independent review of existing practices to determine whether there should be a judicial inquiry. Strong stuff.

The reality

The specific $132,000 consultant's report that Harper cites is not fully a secret document in an empty folder, which the Conservatives could have checked by asking Indian and Northern Affairs. Having discovered serious tensions between employees and local management in one of its bigger offices, the department asked Ottawa-based management consultants Totem Hill Inc. to interview those involved and report back. A long and detailed contract, an admittedly skimpy executive report, scores of pages of e-mail correspondence and a lengthy plan by senior managers detailing their problems have been available for months, and were forwarded to Reality Check after a quick phone call. To encourage employees to talk freely with the consultants, DINA promised them they wouldn't be quoted directly on anything they said. Hence the verbal summaries.

Earnscliffe, of course, is another kettle of fish. For years it has been the quintessential Ottawa insider, a high-level mix of former Conservative backroomers and Paul Martin Liberals, whose successes - and high-handedness – regularly provoked resentment among partisan foes and even fellow Liberals.

In her statement to a parliamentary committee in April, 2005, Auditor General Sheila Fraser noted, when asked, that five of eight reports submitted by Earnscliffe to then finance minister Martin between 1999 and 2002 were verbal. But she noted this almost in passing, without any negative comment. Earnscliffe was supplying Martin with budget-related advice and polling data, so there would have been a high level of secrecy attached to its work. Of course it could have also been helping him with political advice, to unseat then prime minister Jean Chr�tien at the same time. Who would know?

Specific claims

In their attack on government polling, the Conservatives attempt to enlist the Auditor General in their cause, though in ways she may not be fully comfortable with.

At one point, they quote her 2005 report which notes government polling increased by over 300 per cent during the previous nine years in which the Liberals were in power. The implication being it is out of control and open to abuse. The numbers are correct but the average value of individual contracts actually fell during that same period, which suggests the government was receiving more bang for its polling buck. Total government polling was slashed to $4 million in 1993, when the Liberals were returned to office, a fraction of what it was under the previous Mulroney regime. It has since edged its way up to $29 million in the 2004-05 fiscal year, an average of $46,698 per contract.

The Conservatives also say the Auditor General singled out Martin's finance department "in particular" for questionable behaviour. Also that "the Auditor General has raised concerns that many federal departments may be flouting the rules, and that breaking the rules extended beyond the Sponsorship program."

Not quite. Finance gets barely a mention in the AG's reports on polling or advertising. At one point it is even praised mildly for having a more rigorous selection process for outside contractors than in the past. At another it is rapped on the knuckles for not tallying up all the individual hours of those who worked on a particular contract.

When it came to polling, the AG's concern was more that certain departments were not showing a clear need for some of the research they were commissioning; also that some were subscribing to the syndicated quarterly surveys by some of the larger polling firms, surveys which happen to include analysis of voting behaviour and party image. These are areas ministries are supposed to steer clear of, according to government guidelines.

Bottom line

Since coming to power in 1993, the Liberals have tried three different systems to try to centralize and so de-politicize the issuing of polling and advertising contracts. Obviously this didn't work in the case of the sponsorship scandal and it would be na�ve to think that government polling contracts are free of partisan bias, or not used on occasion to reward friends. But in her hard look at government polling practices, carried out at the same time as she was unearthing the sponsorship debacle, the AG found nothing much to get her teeth into.

Her fairly faint praise: "We found that public opinion research was managed with a certain degree of transparency. For the most part, roles, responsibilities and procedures were clear."

For a detailed look at the cost of government polling, which departments – mostly Health and Human Resources – take the lion's share see Public Opinion Research Canada Annual Report.

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