Monday, February 27, 2012

The voter interference scandal

It is going to happen sooner or later and it seems to TC this might be the one, the scandal that finally damages the Harper government's reputation as being essentially straightforward and honest.  They don't deserve that reputation,  but so far they have retained it.

However, as Lawrence Martin reminds us in the Feb. 27 edition of iPolitics, the vote suppression scandal is really nothing new for the Harper government:
The Conservatives have been caught up in many shady activities since coming to power. The revelation that they may have been behind a robocall operation to suppress voting for opposition parties would rank, if proven, among the more serious offenses....
In giving or not giving the benefit of the doubt on matters like these, the question of the track record figures prominently. To the misfortune of team Harper, its record on duplicitous activities is hardly one to inspire confidence that its hand are clean.
Be sure to read Martin's description of all the other activities. He lists 22 examples and notes that it is not exhaustive.  To be sure.  After publication came this new revelation in the Toronto Star on the voter interference scandal. That latter phrase, in TC's view, is what this scandal should be called. "Robocall" sounds far too neutral.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reporting on Polls

It is TC's view that the reporting of public opinion polls by media outlets has deteriorated recently, athough it has long been flawed.

Two cases in point.

Take, for example, this headline in the Toronto Star, a newspaper that has increasingly been displaying the worst habits of the tabloid NY Post/Toronto Sun variety:  Majority of Canadians support return of death penalty, poll finds.

What is striking is that the headline that appears on the website of the polling firm in question, Angus Reid, actually reads: Canadians Hold Conflicting Views on Death Penalty

While the lead paragraph in the Star speaks of Canadians "warming to the idea of a return of capital punishment", it never outlines the details of the second question asked in the Reid survey: "All things considered, which of these two approaches would you prefer as punishment for convicted murderers in Canada?" The options are "life imprisonment without parole" or "the death penalty".  By a margin of 50% to 38% life imprisonment is preferred.  The question that returned a majority for the death penalty was: "As you may know, Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder in July 1976. All things considered, would you support or oppose reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada?"

It is important to recognize that capturing real public opinion is elusive. Question wording has a significant impact on the numbers that a given query will produce, but it seems clear that, given a choice, Canadians prefer life imprisonment as a punishment for murder.

The Reid headline is more accurate. The Star acknowledges the point about respondents preferring life imprisonment, but the words are deep in the story and oblique: "Given the choice of supporting the death penalty or life imprisonment, 50 per cent chose the latter, the survey found." The impression is clearly left that Canadians are more enthusiastic about the death penalty than life imprisonment. But it ain't so.

A quick Google search also reveals a 2010 Ekos poll that contradicts the Reid question that did produce a majority favouring return of the death penalty (a plurality of 46% to 40% disagreed with the idea of restoring the death penalty).  Information about other surveys with results on the same topic should also have been included if the Star was doing its job.

A more traditional flaw one sees oft repeated is the media outlet/pollster that reports a new result without reference to the work of any other polling firms. Thus we have the following National Post headline about a Forum Research poll: Liberals reach post-election high, but Tories rule the polls 

Just one problem, they are referring only to Forum Research polls. The last Nanos poll, taken before the Forum Poll, had the Liberals at 27.6%, slightly higher than Forum's 26%. Unfortunately, one sees this kind of comparison frequently.  The real problem is the careless journalism.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Larry Desjardins

Larry Desjardins, a former Manitoba cabinet minister, died this week.  However, published obituaries (here and here) missed two moments of his political life of historic importance. 

The key moment came following the June 25, 1969 election when Ed Schreyer`s NDP won 28 of the 57 seats in the Manitoba legislature.  Efforts in the days after the election to construct a coalition between the 22 Progressive Conservatives led by Premier Walter Weir and the remaining 5 Liberals plus a Social Credit member and an independent were brought to an abrupt halt by the announcement by Desjardins, elected as a Liberal that year, that he would sit in the legislature as a Liberal-Democrat and support an Ed Schreyer led government.

This gave Manitoba its first NDP government.  Since 1969 the NDP has ruled Manitoba for almost 28 years (compared to 15 years for the PCs).

In 1970 Desjardins wavered in deciding whether to support the government`s legislation to create public auto insurance.  However, Ed Schreyer kept his support. This sustained the government during a critical period early in its life. It also ensured that a key election promise, which would prove to be very popular over time, was kept intact. This second decision by Larry Desjardins was also of considerable historic importance and deserves to be remembered.