Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fake Polling, Fraking and the NB Election

(Breaking from my blogs on the ethics of choice for a quick comment on the NB election.)

I got my first fake public opinion survey last night. We have all experienced, I am sure, those marketing or public opinion telephone survey that interrupts our evening. "Hi, I'm X calling on behalf of ABC research. We are hoping you can take the time to answer a brief survey." Sometimes they are about specific products. This one was about politics. They are not really surveys. They are designed to help businesses find a market for products or, in the case of the one I received last night, provide information for a political party in the midst of an election campaign. The person who called me did not know who paid for the survey, but the questions asked led me to strongly believe that it was the provincial PC Party. This led me to think about the election and what is going on. I find it disturbing and I've lost a fair amount of the respect I had for the current government. I don't agree with them, to be sure, on just about anything but I thought they were fair and honest. The way they are running this election campaign, however, has led me to re-assess this and not for the normal "politicians are basically dishonest" reasons that a lot of people give. Bear with me and I'll explain using this public opinion survey as one example.

Normally, I suspect like most of you, I politely refuse to participate in phone surveys. I try not to be rude to the caller because they are just doing their job and, in most cases, I'm pretty certain that they would take a different job if they could. Calling around to people who don't want to talk to you to ask a bunch of questions that they don't really want to answer, can't be much fun. Because I had a couple of free minutes and because the caller promised that the survey was very brief, I said "sure, I'll participate." After confirming that I was indeed a male older than eighteen, the first question asked me if I were employed by a political party or the media. Easier enough: "no." The second question asked me how I intended to vote. I make no secret of my voting intentions, but I thought "cool. Maybe this is actually a political science type poll and I am contributing to data that will be used to study this election."

The third question go me nervous. It ran something like: you selected a party other than the Progressive Conservative Party. What chance is there that you would change your mind and consider voting PC?" I had a four point scale that was not particularly accurate (fairly likely, etc.,"). After listening to my options, I gave the most honest answer I could "Is there anything lower than the lowest option you gave me?" "No ..." "Well," I said, "there is nothing that could get me to vote PC. To change my vote the Lord Jesus would have to come down and personally instruct me to vote Tory."

The fourth question began with an effort to frame the answer. In other words, it was not an effective or scholarly survey. It began by stating something to the effect of "some people don't think unemployment is high enough yet to justify fraking" ... at this point I ended the survey and hung up.

What was going on. This is clearly not a survey but an effort to do two things:

(a) to provide some sort of public opinion survey that could be spun in support of a faltering PC election campaign. You know what I'm talking about here "a new survey demonstrates that New Brunswickers are, indeed, likely to accept fracking .... " or "a new survey shows that New Brunswickers are concerned about unemployment and since fracking is a way to address this."

(b) to provide the PCs with some indication of how their one-issue election campaign is going. Since they are not doing well but are making some very, very modest gains ... they might want to know if they should broaden their message. If fracking isn't sticking to the wall ... might something else.

In either case, I had no desire to participate and the fact that this poll was disguised as a survey, rather than the relatively crass election tool it actually was got me thinking about this whole campaign and how it epitomizes the problems with democracy in Canada.  I'm pretty certain different candidates have strengths and weaknesses, but the merits of the PC campaign from the point of view of democracy are ... shockingly limited. How so. Three matters (in addition to fake polls) deserve attention.

1) Premier Alward began the campaign on a decidedly undemocratic note by stating that it was a referendum on hydrofracking (see the connection to the poll I mentioned above!). An election campaign can be many things but it is not a referendum on a single issue. To be sure, some issues dominate election campaigns more than others and periodically single issues gain a particular importance. Federally, the sponsorship scandal in Quebec (which at least had the merits of being about trustworthiness and manipulation) and the Free Trade election of 1988 stand out. But, election campaigns are not referenda because if the government -- a government he heads -- wanted to have a referendum on hydrofracking ... they could. It would be called ... a referendum. For the premier, then, the campaign began on a manipulative note.

Elections are about many things and should be about many things. One of the things that they are about, however, is governance. They are, in effect, a referendum but a referendum on the government: its policies, trustworthiness, effectiveness. Sitting governments need, of course, forward looking policies -- here is what we will do next -- but they also must defend their record: here is how we have behaved in government (promises kept; not kept; innovations, etc.). They are not about a single issue and to make them about a single issue -- or, to try to make them about a single issue -- distracts from what they actually should be about, particular in this case since an alternative was available to the Premier to his "referendum on fracking" idea.

2) Connected to point 1 above, by stating that the election is a referendum on a single issue, the premier can both avoid his own record (which, as I said, at least until recently had the merits of being honest) but he also avoid other issues. Fracking is not the only issue that NB needs to address. It is a way of focusing the campaign so that other issues are not given due time and, thus, what the Permier is doing, as my grandfather used to say, asking New Brunswickers to "buy a pig in a poke."  He is asking those who support fracking to buy the rest of his agenda without stating what it is. So, in addition to trying to make the record of a sitting government somehow unimportant in an election, he is also asking for a blank cheque on other issues.

3) By making the election about a single issue -- "vote for me and we will frack" -- the real issues related to fracking are also eclipsed. Let me be clear: I'm not a fan of fracking but in a democracy that is a policy issue we should debate and widely.  We have scientific  reports we can discuss, trade-offs about which we can argue, alternatives that we should consider (perhaps even ones that you or I have not thought of).  There are timeframes to consider, safety precautions, forward and backward economic linkages, communities abilities to determine what happens in their own neck of the woods, aboriginal rights, among other things. Simply voting for a government that supports fracking does not make the rest of these issues go away. It does not, suddenly, make the scientific reports on fracking less valid or the concerns of First Peoples disappear.

4) There are some sensible ideas on the table with regard to fracking, but unfortunately all these get lost and the Premier's discourse has done little to clarify them. For instance, the scientific panels investigating fracking have pointed out that determining its effects on the local ecology is difficult because of a lack of baseline studies. They conclude -- and I think intelligently -- that the problem we confront is that we cannot say for sure one way or the other about whether or not fracking is safe for the water table. What we need to do, the report concludes, is stop fracking (or, not start), let the water table settle, and then drill test wells to determine the effects. Now, here is a reasonably sound policy that has the great merit of saying "let us get the information we need to make an informed decision." Instead of engaging this perspective, the Premier says "they have fracked safely elsewhere" but he neglects to mention that the lack of baseline studies means that we don't know whether or not the results are safe.

There is a bigger point here and I don't want this to be a rant against the Premier. My concern is with democracy and how it is politically manipulated. From the point of view of crass politics, I can understand what the PCs are doing. I don't agree with it, but I can see the logic in it if all one is interested in doing is winning and election (and, if that were the be-all-and-end-all of Premier Alward's goals - if this is just about power for him --I am not at all certain I want him for Premier). Focusing on a single issue is a good way of detracting attention from a weak record which does contain some broken promises (I thought those broken promises were actually reasonable broken promises that should never have been made in the first place and I praised Alward for breaking them and explaining why. I thought -- and still do -- think that NBers were mature enough to say "gee, if that was a bad promise, we don't want to see it implemented because it will produce adverse results."), little innovation, and a lot of status quo, not much has changed. In other words, the PC government really has not done very much. I also thought it was a way of detracting from the fact that they don't seem to have much else to offer either. In other words, whatever else they are putting on the table will likely not win votes. And, it is clear that they are running fairly far behind in the polls. So, the political logic -- pretend to hold a referendum that is not a referendum while ignoring the fact that you *could* have held a referendum if you wanted and missing the chance to have a real policy debate in order to focus attention away from a weak record -- is clear. I suppose the problem I have is that not only does this approach create problems for democracy ... I expected better of Premier Alward.
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