Harper government cranks up polling in run-up to election

The Conservative government has been ordering extra public-opinion research in the months leading up to the expected October election. The taxpayer-funded polling asks Canadians questions about the Senate, ISIS and taxes - which critics say is an attempt to get an edge on political opponents.

Harper's department, Privy Council Office, twice orders extra public-opinion research on public dime

The Privy Council Office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's department, has expanded its polling ahead of this fall's election. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Harper government has ordered extra taxpayer-paid polling in the months leading up to the scheduled October election, spending beyond its budget and asking Canadians more questions about hot topics, such as the future of the Senate.

The prime minister's own department, the Privy Council Office, twice added public opinion research it had not budgeted for in 2014-15, at a cost of $160,278 on top of its original allotment of $250,000.

And the department later ordered a spring poll that's being conducted this June by Harris Decima, a departure from past practice of two polls each year, one in midwinter, the other in late summer.

CBC News has learned the current Harris Decima poll asks Canadians for their opinions on whether Ottawa has raised or lowered taxes; on support for sending the military to fight ISIS; and whether the Senate should be abolished, changed or kept the same. Previous polls have asked about taxes, ISIS and the Senate – but not all at the same time.

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office confirmed the department has commissioned more polling than originally planned.

"PCO requested approval to conduct additional research in 2014-2015 in order to ensure that the department had an up to date understanding of public perceptions in light of developing circumstances," Raymond Rivet said in an email.

Polling creeps up

Rivet did not respond to related questions about the department's current-year polling, including the cost of the June survey by Harris Decima or any other polls planned for later this year.

Among the taxpayer-funded polling the Harper government has ordered this election year is one about whether the Senate should be abolished. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Since first coming to power in 2006, the Conservatives have drastically cut the amount the taxpayer-paid polling government-wide, from $31 million a year to a low of $4.3 million in 2012-2013. But the amount started to creep up again in the following year, to almost $5 million.

And in 2014-2015 the Privy Council Office – the central organ of government – ordered $410,278 worth of public-opinion research, the highest sum spent by that department on such research since 2008.

On Oct. 29 last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally approved $25,781 worth of extra focus-group work in the wake of the Oct. 22 attack at the National War Memorial and in Parliament. Harper also approved a Leger Marketing survey, awarded March 6 this year, for $134,500. No further details were made available by PCO.

Typically what happens is there's a bit of a freeze that happens in the run-up to an election- Pollster Stephen Kiar

Another key department, Finance Canada, has also been increasing the amount of public opinion research it conducts. Polling and focus-group contracts posted on the Finance Canada website show spending in 2014-2015 of $512,000, similar to the previous year. Those levels are the highest since 2010.

Under federal rules, public opinion surveys commissioned from pollsters must be publicly posted on a Library and Archives website "within six months of the completion of the data collection," which means most are stale by the time the public or opposition parties can view them.

And since April 2010, Privy Council Office has taken over the pollsters' traditional task of analyzing the raw data of those polls that ask questions about hot topics. The office is not required to make these internal analyses public.

Such analytic reports can be requested through the Access to Information Act. But the Privy Council Office has been withholding most of the information they contain by citing Section 21, which protects "advice" given to ministers. The information commissioner of Canada is currently investigating a complaint from CBC News about such censorship.

The PCO's website calls itself "the hub of non-partisan, public service support to the prime minister and cabinet and its decision-making structures."

Dynamics changing?

Pollster Stephen Kiar, CEO and owner of Ottawa-based Phoenix SPI, says that public opinion research normally winds down as a federal election approaches.

"Typically what happens is there's a bit of a freeze that happens in the run-up to the election as well as during the election," he said in an interview.

But Kiar added that the new fixed election date may be changing the dynamics of advertising and polling.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian says the Harper government's use of tax dollars for promotional TV ads and extra polling is 'completely inappropriate.' (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Harper government has previously come under fire for using taxpayer dollars to pay for what critics say is thinly disguised partisanship, including what the opposition parties have denounced as "vanity videos" by the Prime Minister's Office and by Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre's department; and ubiquitous Economic Action Plan ads that sometimes tout programs not yet passed by Parliament.

Peter Julian, New Democrat House leader, said the stepped-up polling is characteristic of the government's repeated use of public money for partisan purposes.

"The Conservatives are basically breaking every single ethical code imaginable … to get themselves re-elected," he said in an interview. "This government has not an honest bone in its body."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

With a file from Rosemary Barton


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