Independent senator under fire for $15K poll on Liberal reforms to the upper house

The Senate's internal economy committee is probing Independent Sen. Donna Dasko's decision to bill taxpayers for a $15,000 poll of Canadians' opinions of the Liberal government's changes to the upper house.

Upper house to debate appropriateness of Sen. Donna Dasko billing taxpayers for poll on Trudeau Senate reforms

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Senate's internal economy committee is probing Independent Sen. Donna Dasko's decision to bill taxpayers for a $15,000 poll of Canadians' opinions of the Liberal government's changes to the upper house.

Conservative members of the committee — which examines expense claims and office budgets, among its other responsibilities — argued strenuously that Dasko's poll, conducted by Nanos Research, should never have been approved by Senate administration as a legitimate parliamentary expense because the poll questions were partisan in nature and designed to show support for Liberal reforms ahead of the fall federal election.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said he'd do away with the Trudeau government's changes to the Senate and return to the practice of appointing party members to the Red Chamber.

Independent senators on the committee, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pointed to a legal opinion from Senate administration that said the question of which activities can be considered political, partisan or electoral in nature is a hard one to answer, but senators are allowed to expense polls through their office budgets when it's appropriate — and in this case, it was.

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters, the committee's deputy chair, pointed to a question on the Dasko survey that she says belies any claim that this poll was conducted for non-partisan, apolitical purposes.

If we found the opposite, I can tell you those Conservatives would be yelling it from the rooftops. They'd be thrilled.- Independent Ontario Sen. Donna Dasko

The poll, which doesn't mention political leaders by name, asked Canadians, "Looking ahead, do you think a future government should keep these changes or go back to the previous ways of appointing senators?"

The poll found that only 3.4 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed by Nanos on the phone and online between March 29 and April 1 said future governments should "go back to the previous ways of appointing" senators, while 76.7 per cent said future governments should retain the changes made by the current government.

The margin of error for a random survey of 1,000 Canadians is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Independent B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the Independent Senators Group, subsequently posted the poll's results on his Twitter feed and asked federal party leaders to state clearly their positions on Senate appointments ahead of the fall vote.

He said the poll demonstrates "the new approach to selecting senators and the subsequent appointment of independent senators to the upper chamber align with the values of Canadians."

Conservative senators said Woo's advocacy of the poll is partisan in nature.

"It's setting the stage for a debate on the Senate in the October election. To add fuel to the fire, Sen. Woo was on Twitter and he's calling on Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh to respond in advance of the election," said Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall (Newfoundland and Labrador).

"The survey is being used now in the election process and that is not permitted under our rules. It's definitely going to be used in support of the Liberal Party. I don't think that survey should be a bona fide expense of the Senate."

In an interview with CBC News, Dasko said the poll was "not at all" political and she was simply "consulting with Canadians on legitimate questions of public policy."

She said Tory senators have set their sights on her not to safeguard Senate funds, but rather because they don't like the poll's conclusion: that those surveyed do not want to return to the appointments process that put the Conservative contingent in the Senate in the first place.

"If we found the opposite, I can tell you those Conservatives would be yelling it from the rooftops. They'd be thrilled. They'd be using it to bolster whatever their opinion is, if I found something different," Dasko said.

"But I found this. To me, it's a classic shoot-the-messenger thing that I've see many times in my career. If you don't like a poll result, critique the poll and see what damage can be done."

"They don't like these results and they're just going to try everything they can to discredit them. So, they've found this particular avenue," she added, pointing to the complaints made to the internal economy committee.

Some of them — some — are just very negative. That's just the way they operate.- Independent Ontario Sen. Donna Dasko

"Some of them — some — are just very negative. That's just the way they operate," Dasko said of Conservative senators.

Dasko was a nationally recognized pollster and senior vice-president at Environics Research before she was appointed to the Senate by Trudeau in June 2018. She did not use her former firm to conduct the poll.

"Senators can do polling. It's a totally approved activity. When I was a pollster, I polled for senators. The criticism has no merit. It was totally approved. I went to the finance people and they said, 'Yes, you can do it.' All the proper steps were taken," she said.

Dasko said the $15,000 price tag for the poll is reasonable: "I have to say ... this has got to be one of the cheapest polls I've ever done. This price tag is quite modest, in the scheme of things." She said national polls of this size can cost many times that amount.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters says Sen. Dasko's poll on the Liberal-initiated Senate reform is partisan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk asked Senate bureaucrats Thursday why they approved the poll in the first place, without first looking at the questions Dasko intended to ask. "Didn't anybody in finance say, 'Oh we should check on this?'" Tkachuk said. "It's a political poll, no matter how you cut it, which should not have been paid for by the Senate."

Tkachuk said Dasko should pay for the poll herself.

In December, the Senate rejected calls to bring in outside oversight of expenses, preferring instead to leave such decisions to a committee composed entirely of senators.

Beyond showing support for a non-partisan appointments process, the survey found that respondents have a largely negative impression of senators. In fact, 45.9 per cent of respondents said they have a negative or somewhat negative opinion of senators, while 16.5 per cent of respondents were unsure.

Dasko said that, while the number of people with a low opinion of senators remains quite high, there's been a "huge improvement" since the height of the expenses scandal of 2014-15, when the portion of Canadians reporting a negative opinion of senators hit 65 per cent.

Independent Ontario Sen. Tony Dean said the Dasko poll was the best way to solicit opinions on Trudeau's new appointments process, which relies on non-partisan advisory boards to help the prime minister make his picks. He insisted it was not intended to further the interests of the Liberal Party specifically, but rather to help the institution make reforms to improve its standing in the eyes of Canadians.

The Senate rules stipulate that, for expense purposes, "parliamentary functions" don't include activities related to "the election of a member of the House of Commons during an election under the Canada Elections Act" or "supporting or opposing a political party or an individual candidate in the context of a federal, provincial, territorial or municipal election, or any other local election."

Dean said the poll was not conducted during an election campaign, so it's not offside with the Senate rules and should be considered an appropriate expense.

The committee will continue its study of the poll next week.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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