‘Pandora’s Box’: Tories cry foul as Senate agrees to pay for $15K poll on Liberal reforms

The Senate’s internal economy committee has agreed to pay for Independent Sen. Donna Dasko’s $15,000 poll on Liberal reforms to the upper house — but there was disagreement on whether billing taxpayers for polls should be an established practice, especially when they’re conducted close to an election.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters said the Senate has worked hard to improve its reputation in recent years, especially as it relates to expenses, and newly appointed Independent senators should be more mindful of taxpayer funds.

While an opinion from the Senate administration states that officials believe the Dasko poll fell within the rules, Batters said she thinks surveying Canadians on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reforms to the upper house is a partisan activity designed to bolster the fortunes of the Liberal Party ahead of an expected fall election — and should not be approved.

“We’ve worked very hard, for several years, to close expense loopholes … after a lengthy and painful Auditor General’s report, and I submit allowing this expense would set a terrible precedent and take us down a dark road that we don’t want to return to,” she said.

“It’s OK to be partisan, it’s OK to be political — it’s a political institution, after all. As long as the activity falls within the bounds of the Senate rules.”

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters: ‘Allowing this expense would set a terrible precedent and take us down a dark road.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk said by approving the expense the committee — which governs expenses and polices office budgets — is opening up “Pandora’s box.”

“What we’re doing is setting a precedent. We’re going to have more polls going on that are more political than you can possibly imagine,” he said.

In fact, Conservative Sen. Linda Frum asked officials at the committee Thursday what they thought of some proposed questions for a national survey. Her questions centred on the sizeable increases to Senate expenses — they’ve grown by 30 per cent since 2015 — following Trudeau’s changes.

Independent Sen. Ratna Omidvar, another Trudeau appointee, defended the poll as a legitimate attempt by a senator to elicit opinions from Canadians on the chamber.

“What is our role here in the Senate? … It’s to investigate matters of national importance,” she said. “I would submit it’s not a political or partisan issue. It’s an issue of institutional importance.”

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.”

Because the poll wasn’t conducted during an election, the expense is above board, Independent Sen. Tony Dean said.

The committee voted, along partisan lines, to approve the poll “notwithstanding the lack of consensus.” The committee also agreed to review the Senate’s expenses policy on polls moving forward.

Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas said it sets a “terrible precedent” for taxpayers to foot the bill for this sort of poll. He chastised Senate finance officials for not reading the poll’s questions — to determine if what it was asking was political or partisan in nature — before giving Dasko the green light. He suggested there should be a prohibition on such activity a year before an election.

“This poll was used for political purposes in context of an election. It was. We had the leader of the Independent Senators Group talking about how this ought to be an election issue and how every leader ought to put out their position on it. We can’t pretend it’s not political,” he said.

In an interview with CBC News last week, Dasko herself said she received the appropriate approvals from Senate finance officials before commissioning Nanos Research to survey 1,000 Canadians on Senate reforms.

She said that Conservative senators have taken issue with the poll because those surveyed said they prefer Trudeau’s changes to the Senate appointments process — which relies on an independent appointments board to help him make his picks — over the old system of picking mostly party members for the job (the process that put the current Conservative contingent in the upper house).

“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.



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