12/08/2015 07:10 EST | Updated 12/07/2016 05:12 EST

Stephen Harper Ordered $554K In Surveys In Run-Up To Election

Former prime minister Stephen Harper's own department spent more taxpayer money on public-opinion polling in 2014-15 than any other, asking Canadians about niqabs, ISIS and the Senate as preparations for the October federal election kicked into high gear.

Newly disclosed figures show the Privy Council Office spent $554,000 to the end of March this year — more than twice the $250,000 it had originally budgeted — on surveys and focus groups.

The total is much higher than the office had spent in any year since 2006-07, and is well ahead of the next biggest spender last year, the Finance Department at $512,000.

Stephen Harper holds up a pile of money illustrating Liberal tax hikes at a campaign event. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)

One last-minute poll was delivered on the final day of the fiscal year, March 31, a telephone survey that suggested 82 per cent of Canadians favoured a Conservative government requirement that women remove their niqabs or burkas at citizenship ceremonies.

Became flashpoint

The niqab issue became a flashpoint in the federal election, and the $133,000 poll results from Leger Marketing were posted on a government website on Sept. 24 — hours before a French-language election debate where the niqab issue was prominent. (The new Liberal government has since eliminated any such requirement at citizenship ceremonies.)

Harper on March 4 personally approved the Leger poll, which also asked Canadians, including focus groups, about Canada's military role against ISIS, efforts to assist Ukraine and the economy.

The Privy Council Office, reporting directly to the prime minister, was given a more prominent role under Harper for co-ordinating polling among all departments. As of April 2010, the office also became responsible for analyzing key polls across departments, removing that job from the polling companies themselves.

The Privy Council Office's in-house poll analyses are exempt from current requirements to post taxpayer-funded surveys publicly within six months. And access-to-information requests to the Privy Council for the analyses are routinely rebuffed, with the government claiming the information constitutes "advice" and is therefore exempt from disclosure.

A Public Works annual report on polling expenditures, published Monday, shows spending of $4.1 million on surveys and focus groups among all departments in 2014-15. Although PCO spending was up sharply last year, the total across government was down, from $4.9 million the year before.

The Public Works annual report was supposed to have been published Aug. 14, but then public works minister Diane Finley vetoed the plan in July, a briefing note obtained under the Access to Information Act shows.

A spokesman for Public Works, Pierre-Alain Bujold, said Monday that the "posting schedule of the 2014-15 report was adjusted due to the election period."

And Raymond Rivet of Privy Council Office said the additional polling ordered by Harper in 2014-15 was "primarily to track emerging issues such as declining oil prices and international issues (ISIS, Russia/Ukraine)."

"The polling conducted was not connected to the federal election," Rivet said.

Survey on ISIS

Harper also ordered a survey in the current fiscal year, a $150,000 Harris/Decima contract that asked Canadians and focus groups between May 20 and June 1 about ISIS, the Senate and taxes — all issues that played prominently in the election campaign that began Aug. 2.

A significant amount of annual polling by some departments assesses the effectiveness of advertising campaigns, under a policy that requires such surveys for every campaign worth more than $1 million.

Critics railed against the Conservative government for using taxpayer-funded advertising for purely political ends, including ubiquitous Economic Action Plan ads. The new Liberal government has promised to appoint an advertising commissioner "to review proposed messages to ensure that they are non-partisan and represent a legitimate public service announcement."

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