Conservative senators want rookie Trudeau appointee Donna Dasko to consider repaying $15,000 in expenses for a “push poll” she commissioned out of her office budget, then used to ballyhoo Liberal government reforms.
“Clearly this survey was developed with partisan political considerations in mind, attempting to validate Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau’s platform promises,” said Conservative Senate caucus leader Larry Smith, adding the dubious poll broke enhanced spending rules restricting partisan activities.
In June of 2018, Trudeau picked the prominent Canadian pollster to occupy one of 105 seats in the Canadian Senate: storied Upper Chamber of sober second thought to the House of Commons’ legislative inclinations.
A Prime Minister’s Office-vetted bio describes Dasko as “media commentator” whose record with Environics, the polling company she founded, included the “Globe-Environics Poll and election and special feature polling for the CBC.”
Dasko is among 49 senators appointed via a new shortlist process, a product of Trudeau’s promised Senate reform and different from the old-fashioned way of a PM simply nominating anyone he or she pleased.
While Trudeau claims this Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments will make the Senate non-partisan, the board is entirely handpicked by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Additionally, the panel is not only concerned about merit, but rates candidates on a range of metrics including sexual and ethnic diversity – see the board’s latest report, here:
Gauging public sentiment on these appointment changes – a process that led to Dasko’s own selection – was the goal of the Nanos poll she commissioned, and according to its results, the entire reform process is virtually unknown to half of the 1000 Canadians who answered her survey.
Nevertheless, Dasko claims her poll’s results show 77 per cent want to keep these reforms that fewer than four-out-of-ten admit they “heard or read something about” – just 56 per cent actually “heard about independent senators.”
The first independent senators were born in April 2014, when Trudeau decided to cut existing Liberal appointees in the Upper Chamber from the party’s national caucus. The son of former PM Pierre Trudeau had barely been party leader for a year before making this nation-changing decision.
And his Senate reform continued after winning a majority government, when in January 2016, the PMO established by way of Order-in-Council, the advisory board to weed through applicants and build a roster of potential “independents” to fill Senate vacancies.
By March of that year, the Independent Senator Group in the Upper Chamber was formed; an amalgam of Trudeau’s original castaways, destination for his new picks and haven for embattled Harper-era appointees including Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.
Trudeau’s decision to abandon his Senate caucus occurred just months before Duffy was charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in July of 2014. It was the capper on highly publicized spending scandals involving all three that culminated with Duffy’s trial and exoneration, well after Stephen Harper lost the election and had exited federal politics.
But even an intensifying scandal focussed on his trio of picks – suspended in November 2013 from the Senate (all since reinstated) – didn’t prevent then-PM Harper from chiding Trudeau’s decision to cut his Liberal senators loose.
“I gather the change announced by the leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal,” said Harper during question period repartee on that Senate scandal and purported reform at the time.
Harper wanted an elected Senate, but requiring Constitutional support by the provinces to do it, the polarizing Conservative leader could only exercise that option in Alberta, which had its own elected appointee process until related provincial legislation expired in 2016.
Dasko’s survey notes 46 per cent still report “negative impressions” of the Senate due to “scandal” but credits a 20 per cent drop in negative impressions since 2016 to Trudeau’s reforms. Nearly 60 per cent who responded say these reforms will improve the Senate, according to survey results.
“Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has vowed to scrap the independent selection process and return to a partisan Senate if elected,” warns Dasko, now a member of the Independent Senate Group, whose 58 mostly Liberal government appointees currently hold the outright majority in the Upper Chamber.
And because of this majority, they are called upon to answer for the current government’s policy by the second-largest block – 31 Conservative caucus members under Smith’s leadership in the Senate. All are direct PM appointments under the previous system and members of the Conservatives’ national caucus, unlike a compact of nine Liberals (the third place block), also direct PM-appointees, who now sit unrecognized and estranged by their national caucus.
Smith accuses Dasko of creating a “push poll” with leading questions, whose results are very unreliable and ultimately intended for political messaging. Its citation by a salutary Independent Senator Group press release, then reference by ISG leader Peter Harder in Senate debate, only reinforces its partisan intention said Smith.
“For a group that claims to be non-partisan, they are certainly playing political games. Their actions speak louder than words,” he said. “With the fall election looming, the testing of the Trudeau Liberal narrative in the Senate should be considered a campaigning effort.”
During Thursday’s Senate question period, Senator Denise Batters challenged Harder on the new senate advisory board’s national representation and its credibility as an independent arbiter.
“To date you haven’t given us any information so that we can evaluate how independent and arm’s length it really is. We don’t know who sponsored the now 16 most recently appointed senators,” said Batters, noting Saskatchewan had declined to name panelists as had previous governments of British Columbia and Manitoba. “We know that those boards were 100 per cent filled by the PMO.”
Harder, who is Trudeau’s first “independent senator” pick under the PM’s Senate-reform package, replied that Dasko’s survey suggested voters had faith in the process.
“Let me simply draw attention to a recent public survey that was referenced yesterday by Senator Dasko, which speaks to the support that Canadians have expressed, which I think is 77 per cent on the independent Senate appointment process.”
According to the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments’ December 2018 report (see above link) from a pool of more than nearly 3300 applicants, it shortlisted 180 candidates for selection.
But the board’s “arm’s length” credentials were damaged after celebrity chef and CBC Dragon’s Den personality Vikram Vij, a panel member for British Columbia, was discovered as Trudeau’s ‘guest chef’ on the PM’s botched goodwill visit to India.
The Post Millennial provided Senator Dasko an opportunity to respond to Smith’s claims she violated office spending rules and to explain her poll’s methodology, but she has not responded as of the time of publishing.
Dasko did, however, give an interview on Wednesday to her old paymasters CBC, for whom the PMO earlier bragged Dasko had conducted custom polling in her previous career. Speaking to As It Happens, Dasko denied her poll was partisan and that it broke spending laws in the Senate.
“This is perfectly legit. It was all cleared,” Dasko claimed. “Comes right out of my existing budget.”
While section 5.18 of the Senate’s office budget policy restricts spending on partisan activities, it does not specifically mention the commissioning of polls.