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Government poll suggests Cdns believe Senate-expense scandal tip of iceberg

The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen Tuesday May 28, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen Tuesday May 28, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Public-opinion polling ordered by the Harper government suggests the Senate expense scandal has tarred all politicians with the same brush.

A newly released report finds Canadians fed up with "rich politicians" and their "lush lifestyles," and wondering how deep the flagrant spending abuse runs.

Those views dominate the polling and survey groups conducted by private pollster Leger last August for the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's own department.

The survey specifically asked about the economy, pipelines and telecom regulation — but it was the Senate scandal that seemed to get people's blood boiling.

The $112,000 report included a telephone survey of 3,000 Canadians, and 12 focus groups in six cities, including a French-language group in Quebec City.

Leger was hired to ask Canadians specifically about the Senate scandal, which then involved allegations of spending abuse by Conservative senators Mike Duffy, Pam Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, all of whom were subsequently voted out of the current Senate session, losing their paycheques.

"Recent allegations regarding misspending were perceived as a sign that more accountability was needed for all use of public money," says the newly released report.

"The events of the past few months created a sense among participants that overspending or using public money for personal benefits may be widespread."

The report cites Canadians' personal economic difficulties as exacerbating their frustration with the misuse of public funds in the upper house.

"Many participants spontaneously contrasted what they viewed as a waste of tax dollars by rich politicians to their more difficult personal situation," says the document, dated Oct. 30.

"They were frustrated to think that public servants used Canadians' hard-earned tax dollars to live lush lifestyles while taxpayers personally struggled to make a decent living. For that reason, few believed that the status quo was acceptable."

The striking findings may help explain the Harper government's tough line on the Senate scandal in the fall session of Parliament, as senators were pressured to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau from their posts, despite concerns about due process.

The Harper government kept up the heat in this week's budget, which promised legislation that would ensure senators do not accrue pension benefits while suspended. The new law is not expected to apply retroactively.

Shortly after Tuesday's budget was released, CBC reported further dubious travel expenses by Conservative senators, including questionable use of business class in short-haul flights and taxpayer-funded flights by spouses — much of it coming at the height of the spending controversy.

The Leger polling found Canadians especially frustrated by alleged Senate abuse of public funds because "very few among them could explain what senators did on a daily basis, nor what the Senate's role is within the Canadian parliamentary system."

Participants said the overspending issue appeared to be a problem "that may be uncovered elsewhere" in government.

Leger was also specifically asked to question Canadians on telecom deregulation, including reaction to a series of ads from big industry players that pressed the government to bar foreign players from the Canada's market.

"Most reacted to the telecom advertising campaign with cynicism, stating that certain companies were simply trying to protect themselves so they did not have to lower their prices."

On the economy, most of those surveyed indicated job creation was a priority.

Especially in Ontario, participants "pointed to the lack of good jobs that created a downward spiral of low wages, low tax revenues, low consumption, etc."

Those surveyed indicated the government of Canada should take "more visible action," Leger found.

"They felt that the actions taken by the Canadian government to improve the economic situation had not been visible enough. Most recalled advertisements on Canada's Economic Action Plan, but they felt they knew very little about specific actions taken."

A key criticism of the federal and provincial governments was that they "were not proactively trying to stay ahead of the curve, but were rather relying on a strong banking sector and natural resources to weather the storm."

The report also said respondents felt pipelines were safer than rail transport of oil, and they especially favoured west-to-east transport of oil by pipeline across Canada.

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