Category Archives: Public Opinion

DATA ON CANADIAN VALUES NOT A PRIORITY FOR FEDS

Does the federal government care if it doesn't know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Does the federal government care if we don’t know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

OTTAWA SAYS IT’S COMMITTED TO RESEARCH DESPITE NOT FUNDING VITAL SURVEY Three federal government departments decided not to fund the latest round of the World Values Survey in Canada because they dedicated their research budget to “other priority areas.”

Earlier, I exclusively reported the absence of such funding meant our country wasn’t among the 59 countries included in that round — one of the few means we have of knowing what our current values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Justice Canada and Canadian Heritage were among the departments that financed the survey’s last wave, which took place in 2005.

Justice contributed $22,150, while Heritage contributed $85,000 to allow the survey’s Canadian investigator Neil Nevitte to “explore social capital and values, including the World Values Survey.”

By comparison, Citizenship and Immigration did not disclose the amount of funding it provided. However, spokesperson for Statistics Canada, which provided $1.4 million for the survey’s Canadian component between 1998 and 2006, stated the department approached it about providing additional financing for the 2010 round. That approach was declined.

There have been concerns that the lack of World Values Survey data for Canada will mean more policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum” and create a “huge hole” for socio-political research.

Government spokespeople didn’t directly respond to a question about those concerns.

Instead, communications staff for the three departments I contacted stated their ministries remain “committed to research and meeting the needs of Canadians today.”

Justice Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada will be relying “on many sources of information” to inform their policy development and program delivery work

Meanwhile, Canadian Heritage has “identified other research priorities to inform performance measurement and policy and program development.”

Nevitte, a University of Toronto political scientist, earlier estimated the cost of gathering the data for the 2010 Canadian component of the World Values Survey would have been around $650,000.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER Earlier, I reported the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying appeared to have passed on participating in a review of lobbying disclosure in Canada. But the office now says it will be making a late contribution to that study, which was already published by the Sunlight Foundation on May 5.

The study stated the United States-based foundation did not receive any response to written questions that had been sent to the commissioner’s office, despite “multiple follow ups.”

However, in an email, a spokesperson for the office stated it is now “in the process of finalizing its response to the Sunlight Foundation. It is the Office’s understanding that its responses will be added to the case study when received.”

THE OVERSTATED POWER OF THE PRESS “Don’t put anything on paper that you don’t want to read on the front page of the Vancouver Sun.” That was the advice I got as a communications advisor for the British Columbia government — versions of which, I suspect, are given to bureaucrats the world over.

But I was always surprised at how much didn’t end up on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. And, as a reporter, I was always frustrated about how difficult it was to get the papers bureaucrats were writing. Which is why I appreciate famed leaker Daniel Ellsberg‘s observation that this adage is “flatly false” — a lie that serves the self-interests of those who were in newsrooms and government.

In his 2002 bestselling memoir Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers — which, given Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s revelations, has become more relevant than ever — Ellsberg states, such truisms are “in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well.”

“Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society,” continues Ellsberg. But “the reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest important to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.”

As such, the statement, “Don’t put anything that you don’t want to read on the front page of the (insert paper of record here)” may simply ensure circumspect record-keeping on the part of bureaucrats, an overstated sense of efficacy on the part of journalists and continued public complacence about the amount of transparency and accountability in our political system.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

LACK OF FUNDING DERAILS VITAL VALUES SURVEY

How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

As a result of a lack of federal government funding, Canada wasn’t included in the most recent World Values Survey — one of the few means we have of knowing what our values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

The survey — which uses individual, face-to-face interviews rather than phone calls — has happened six times over the past 33 years, with the most recent being conducted in 59 different countries. Respondents answer a questionnaire that measures nearly 250 indicators covering everything from someone’s feelings about race to their political leanings.

In the past, the survey has included Canada, with 2,164 Canadian respondents in 2005 and 1,931 in 2000.

Because of that work, we know, for example, that 14 percent of Canadians in 2005 said they wouldn’t like someone who was gay to be their neighbour. By comparison, 24.9 percent of Americans said the same thing.

Past surveys have also told us 64 percent of Canadians in 2005 would have agreed or strongly agreed to an increase in taxes if the extra money was used to prevent environmental pollution — an seven point increase over 2000.

And we know 16.8 percent of Canadians in 2005 agreed or strongly agreed that politicians who don’t believe in God are unfit for public office, compared 30.5 percent of Americans.

Findings such as these are valuable for everyone from journalists and researchers to politicians and everyday voters — potentially leading to stories, studies and policy-changes. But Canadians won’t know if those values or any others changed between 2010-14 because our country — which has been part of the survey since 2000 — wasn’t included in its most recent wave, the results of which were released late last month.

University of Toronto political science professor Neil Nevitte, the investigator in charge of the survey’s Canadian component, stated the money for that research previously came from a number of federal government departments, as well as Statistics Canada.

“Each had very good reasons for wanting these kinds of cross time data for policy reasons,” Nevitte wrote in an email.

According to Nevitte, the cost of gathering the data for the new survey would have been around $650,000. That data gathering would have included hour-long, in-person interviews with 1,500 Canadians and additional interviews with 600 new immigrants.

But Nevitte stated, “In the last round, the members of that [government] consortium faced cutbacks of one sort or another and, in the end, we could not put the team together. Not an unusual story. But truly a shame from many, many points of views.”

Indeed, University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston said the absence of the World Values Survey will result in a “huge hole.”

“It means anything we have to say [about political and social values] will be stale to the tune of at least a decade. We won’t have current stuff,” said Johnston, the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.

As a result, he continued, more public policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum.”

“It’s akin to why the Canadians should care about the long form census,” said Johnston, a reference to the Conservative government’s 2010 decision to replace it with a voluntary national household survey, which is less comprehensive and reliable.

Keith Neuman, executive director of The Environics Institute — a non-profit public opinion research group — echoed Johnston’s comments.

Neuman said the absence of the World Values Survey is another example of where “research that has been historically present and important in terms of how we understand who we are and how we fit into an international context is all going missing.”

He said such research is important because it doesn’t come “through the sometimes distorted lens of the media and special interests.”

Nevitte stated he is currently in the process of trying to secure funding so Canada is included in the World Values Survey’s next round. That round is scheduled to get underway in 2017 with the data being released in 2018 or 2019.

Several federal government departments were unable to respond by deadline to requests for comment placed on Friday last week.

THE WEEK THAT WAS — MAY 3, 2014

Some Canadians speak no evil about the Conservative Party of Canada's broken promises to strengthen access to information. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Some Canadians appear to have neither seen nor heard any evil about the Conservative Party of Canada’s much publicized secrecy. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

• The Harper administration has been repeatedly criticized by the press and the opposition for its secrecy — despite its commitment to strengthen public access to government information.

Nevertheless, according to an opinion poll conducted by Nanos Research for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, just 36 percent of those polled disagreed with the statement that we have “more access to government information now then they ever had before.”

Meanwhile, 18 percent somewhat disagreed with that statement, while 43 percent agreed or somewhat agreed with it. The telephone poll, which surveyed 1,000 Canadians, was conducted between March 6-12 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

• Canada’s NDP has “practical proposals” to improve government transparency and accountability, according to a news release distributed last month. But many of those proposals and their details have yet to be revealed.

During a news conference last month, the NDP — which earlier introduced a bill to strengthen Canada’s Access to Information Act — also committed to develop a standard that will be used to proactively release government research and data.

In an interview, NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat compared that commitment to “what Obama did when he first came to power.” That’s a reference to United States President Barack Obama’s open government initiative, in which he promised to work to “ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.”

Ravignat said the NDP doesn’t yet know what that proactive disclosure standard will look like “because what we were launching is the consultation process to come up with those standards with stakeholders in civil society and experts on data, as well as access to information.”

Ravignant also said that standard is “only one part of an entire open government package that we’ll be rolling out in the months ahead. There’s stuff on whistleblowers that we’ll be announcing and a few other pieces to enhance the transparency and accountability of government writ large.”

Such commitments are common among opposition parties and new governments but are also commonly broken. For example, the Obama administration has been criticized as being the most secretive presidency in American history.

Asked why Canadians should trust the NDP to act on its commitment to transparency and accountability Ravignant acknowledged, “That’s kind of the $100 million question.”

But he said his party has a track record of being a “strong principle voice” and is presently made up of “the least amount of career politicians ever elected in a single caucus in Canadian history.”

Moreover, Ravignant said NDP leader Tom Mulcair “came on record to say we would have an open data by default government so we can certainly keep him to his word. Canadians can keep him to his word for sure. And I think he’s proven to be a pretty principled individual.”

• Earlier, I mentioned how the United Kingdom has an annual audit of political engagement but Canada doesn’t — even though our country’s voter turnout plunged to 58.8 percent in 2008. But thanks to Samara, a Toronto-based charitable organization focused on improving political participation, that’s going to change later this year. This week, in a blog posting, the group mentioned its Samara Index — an open data tool measuring key areas of Canadian democracy — will be rolled out in November 2014.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: Due to end of semester commitments at Mount Royal University, I was unable to publish last week’s look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada.

OPEN DATA IN THE UNKNOWABLE COUNTRY

Mapping the borders of the unknowable country at the Open Data Summit in Vancouver. (Photography by OpenDataBC)

Mapping the borders of the unknowable country at the Open Data Summit in Vancouver. (Photograph by OpenDataBC)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of speaking to the Open Data Summit in Vancouver about the political and cultural barriers to transparency and accountability in Canada — and what those barriers mean to the open data movement. That talk appeared to be well-received, with audience members describing it as “powerful,” “thought provoking” and “fascinating.” So I’m pleased to share the text of it below.

CANADIAN READERS FLIPPING PAST POLITICAL NEWS

An example of how most Canadians don't react to stories about public policy. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

An example of how most Canadians don’t react to stories about public policy. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

By most measures, you’d think the readers of the Victoria Times Colonist — my hometown’s newspaper — would have at least a passing interest in politics.

According to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, a plurality of the capital regional district’s labour force works in public administration, while a majority between the ages of 25 and 64 has some form of higher education. It’s also the seat of government for perhaps the most politically active province in Confederation.

But, even though it was an election year, none of the 25 most read stories on the Times Colonist’s Website had anything to do with politics. Instead, it was stories about soy sauce substitutes, imported fish and a cougar swimming off the coast of Vancouver Island that made that list.

It’s a phenomenon that appears to have been repeated to the same or somewhat lesser degree at major news organizations across the country. And that should be a concern for both journalists and Canadians alike.

In Montreal, for example, the 10 most read Gazette stories on the newspaper’s Website covered everything from restaurant etiquette to boil water advisories. But stories about the province’s public life — including a corruption inquiry and the government’s controversial Charter of Quebec Values — were nowhere to be found.

Even the Globe and Mail’s online readers showed comparatively little interest in the corridors of power — unless those wandering them were intoxicated.

Stories about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged drug video and his family’s past ties to the illegal drug trade made the paper’s top 10 most read list. And so did a column claiming many indigenous communities are “hungering for a return to a more separate existence.”

But the remaining stories on that list — which included reports on whether green coffee bean extract will help you lose weight and how Blackberry “blew it” — had little to do with politics.

Of course, given that local online news can now have a global audience, we shouldn’t assume such lists say something about us. But, looking at other predictors and indicators of political engagement, we shouldn’t assume they don’t either.

For example, during the Canadian Election Study‘s post-2011 campaign survey, respondents were asked how often they discussed news and politics.

Over 32 percent said they don’t generally talk about those subjects with either their friends or family.

Almost 83 percent also said they don’t generally exchange political news and ideas on the Internet.

And a comparable number of respondents said they have never joined a federal political party.

Against this backdrop, which includes historically low voter turnouts, the major media’s most read story lists looks like further confirmation of a politically disengaged country.

Of course, there may be some journalists who say this has nothing to do with them. And there are others who will say journalists should just give the people even more of what they apparently want, as defined by these lists.

But this “see no evil, do no good” attitude could have ramifications for the rights, privileges and freedoms journalists exercise on behalf of their audience and the public.

The most defensible rationale for such access and protection doesn’t come from the news media’s power to communicate with the masses — a power the Internet is making more diffuse by the day.

Instead, it comes from the supposed content of those communications, which are meant to discuss public policy and allow for the criticism of government — the very bulwark of liberty.

But if the masses are not consuming such content, the rationale and existence of journalistic access and protection may be undermined — compromising the news media’s capacity to discharge its societal responsibilities.

Indeed, we are already arguably seeing that happen as public officials, acting on the advice of political and communications advisors, increasingly circumvent or ignore journalists.

That puts accountability, transparency and, by extension, democracy at risk.

As such, it is incumbent on journalists to figure out why Canadians aren’t consuming more political news and what the news media can do about it.

Perhaps it has to do with how journalists cover politics — all sound and fury but too often failing to demonstrate it means something?

Perhaps it has to do with how journalists can’t cover politics, restricted by our limited access to public records and officials?

Perhaps it has to do with how little influence Canadians have over our political system, conceivably decreasing their need and desire for news about it?

Perhaps Canadians just aren’t very interested in influencing our political system, being subjects of a culture that has historically favoured deference over rebellion?

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely?

Regardless, these are questions journalists and Canadians should be asking, answering and, most importantly, doing something about.

Because when a cougar swimming in the ocean bests news about the political future of an entire province something is amiss in the newsrooms, living rooms and legislatures of this nation.

DICTATOR NOT A BAD IDEA, SAY SOME YOUNGER VOTERS

International poll finds surprising Canadian attitudes toward technocracies and dictatorships. (Graphic by World Values Survey)

International poll finds surprising Canadian attitudes toward technocracies and dictatorships. (Graphic by World Values Survey)

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been courting the country’s young voters. So it seems only appropriate that some of those same voters could be among the Canadians most likely to understand his controversial admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship.”

Here’s the reason: earlier, I mentioned that, in 2006, the World Values Survey asked 2,046 of us what we would think if Canada was led by a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”

Surprisingly, 21.2 percent of respondents said having such a leader would be a very good or fairly good way of governing the country. But what’s even more surprising is almost 30 percent of the 404 respondents aged 15-29 years gave the same response.

Just over 48.5 percent of that age group also said having experts make political decisions rather than government would be a good way of running the country. By comparison, 39.4 percent of respondents from all age groups said the same thing.

TRUDEAU NOT ALONE IN ADMIRING DICTATORSHIP?

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's admiration for China's "basic dictatorship" has attracted controversy. But that admiration is also deserving of further scrutiny for what it says about us as a people. (Photograph by Liberal Party of Canada)

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship” has attracted controversy. But that admiration is also deserving of further scrutiny for what it says about us as a people. (Photograph by Liberal Party of Canada)

When Justin Trudeau said last week that he had a “level of admiration” for China’s “basic dictatorship,” the understandable knee-jerk reaction from some politicians and pundits was to kick the federal Liberal leader.

But while that gaffe was reprehensible, it was hardly incomprehensible given the structure of our own political system, the parties within it and how some Canadians feel about dictatorships.

Don’t misunderstand me: the extreme repressiveness of China’s government — with its fetters on rights, freedoms and expression — is indefensible and, I believe, foreign to our values.

But even at first blush, the temptations of a dictatorship for some Canadian politicians should be obvious.

For Trudeau, its a political system that he believes is allowing China to “turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.”

It’s a system where a government and its leaders can potentially act without being frustrated by or even considering public opinion or political opposition.

That’s why it’s so seductive.

Nevertheless, in response to Trudeau’s statement — which was first reported by Sun News — NDP leader Thomas Muclair was quoted by the news outlet as saying, “I’m not a big fan of dictatorships. I rather prefer democracies. I don’t understand how someone can say that their favourite government was a dictatorship, frankly.”

But, frankly, I can’t understand how Mulcair — just one of many who piled on the Liberal leader — can’t understand that.

To be sure, the abuses that China’s government has inflicted on its own people have been denounced by governments and human rights advocates worldwide.

But we should also consider the defects and deficiencies of our own political system, which Mulcair and Trudeau are part of.

Canada’s leaders often enjoy extraordinary powers within their own parties — punishing dissent, rewarding loyalty, making decisions in private and expecting obedience in public.

For example, according to the Canadian Press, when NDP MPs Bruce Hyer and John Raferty voted to abolish the long-gun registry, interim party leader Nycole Turmel punished them.

Postmedia News described those punishments as being their removal from any critic roles or committee memberships, as well being muzzled from making statements or asking questions in the House of Commons.

Thanks to that kind of party discipline, majority governments enjoy extraordinary powers in Canada’s legislatures — circumscribed by the rule of law and regular elections.

Of course, there’s an extremely long march between the polite problems of our own political system and the brutality of China’s administration, which has tortured, jailed and executed dissidents rather than just suspending or expelling them from caucus.

Still, if Mulcair really can’t understand how someone can say that their favourite government was a dictatorship, he must not know how Canadians feel about that subject.

A case in point: in 2006, the World Values Survey found Canadians overwhelmingly believe it’s important the country is governed democratically.

But the survey’s 2,059 respondents were also asked, during in-home interviews, what they would think if experts — rather than the government — made the political decisions in this country.

Almost 40 percent said they thought it would be a very good or fairly good way of running Canada.

But, perhaps even more surprisingly, 21.2 percent gave the same response when asked about having a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”

And that’s just counting those who answered the question honestly.

After all, if we were to be honest with one another, just how much of a democrat are you?

Would you cast aside public opinion and political opposition if it meant bringing into law a bill that would dramatically reduce pollution, crime, terrorism, unemployment or homelessness?

What happens when the will of the people compromises another principle you believe in?

Just how much of an admirer would you be of “basic dictatorship” then?