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The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government

The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government

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    The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government
    Book Description:

    It is a common assumption that governments use public opinion research primarily to help them make popular decisions about major policy issues but few scholars have ever looked beyond this assumption to investigate its veracity. InThe Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government, Christopher Page pulls back the curtain on the uses of polls and focus groups.

    Stressing public opinion on policy rather than on support for parties, Page explores the relationships between government officials and pollsters, and the contributions of public opinion research to the policy process. Three high-profile policies are considered in depth: the patriation of the constitution and the establishment of the Charter of Rights by the Trudeau government, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax by the Mulroney government, and the controversial strengthening of gun control by the Chrétien government.

    The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Governmentdemonstrates that opinion research has a greater variety of roles than is often recognized, and that, despite conventional wisdom, its foremost impact is to help governments determine how to communicate with citizens. It is an essential contribution to the study of Canadian politics, filling a major gap in the scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8223-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    After Iain Angus learned in 1992 that Brian Mulroney’s federal government had spent $700,000 on public opinion polls to find out what Canadians thought about the First Gulf War, he called this use of taxpayers’ money’ obscene/ The New Democrat member of Parliament went on to charge that ’ decisions to send Canadian men and women to war should not be made on the basis of polls/1 Angus implied that the polling influenced the government’s policy, but this was simply an assumption with little evidence to justify it.

    Public opinion polling has become an entrenched feature of modern politics. Even...

  5. 1 Public Opinion and Polling
    (pp. 10-18)

    Ever since scientific opinion polling was launched in the 1930s, observers have believed that this mechanism for learning about the public’s attitudes could transform representative democracy. Troubled by the unrepresentativeness of interest groups and the limitations of elections as expressions of public preferences, and with a confidence in the basic wisdom of citizens, the early pollster George Gallup viewed polls as sampling referendums’ that would inform politicians about public attitudes and make their decisions about public policy more responsive to the opinions of Americans. InThe Pulse of Democracy,published in 1940, Gallup and Saul Rae enthusiastically described polling as...

  6. 2 Public Opinion and Policy-making
    (pp. 19-33)

    What is known and understood about the relationship between public opinion and public policy? Joel Brooks outlines three competing models to describe this relationship in liberal democratic countries such as the United States and Canada.¹ The first, ’democratic linkage,’ sees public opinion as relatively immune from elite leadership and as a significant influence on public policy. This model is closest to the implicit or explicit assumptions of most North American political scientists.² Consistent with this, Robert A. Bernstein argues that the view that citizens shape the behaviour of their elected representatives is widespread in the literature on the American Congress...

  7. 3 The Practice and Framework of Opinion Research for Government in Canada
    (pp. 34-52)

    In order to understand the role of polls and focus groups in Canadian government, it is necessary to examine the context in which they are conducted and used. What kinds of opinion research–and how much–do pollsters conduct for government? What are the other sources of polls for government? How are contracts to conduct opinion research awarded? Which departments spend most on opinion research? What kinds of relationships do polling firms have with their clients in government?

    The federal government’s communications policy defines opinion research in a far-reaching fashion:

    the planned gathering, by or for a government institution, of...

  8. 4 An Overview of the Uses of Opinion Research in the Policy Process
    (pp. 53-65)

    How can polling play a role in the various stages of the policy process: agenda-setting, the development and study of policy alternatives, the choice of policy options, implementation and evaluation?

    Before briefly examining these phases and then turning to answer this question, four general observations are worth making.¹ First, not all senior government officials use opinion research, and indeed a few question its value. Notably, some civil servants, particularly experts in specialized fields such as transportation and the environment, are reluctant to use polls. These officials have an outlook which one pollster suggests they would privately express like this: ’We’re...

  9. 5 Opinion Research and Government Communications
    (pp. 66-79)

    Governments communicate their policies to the public through speeches, media interviews, news releases, press conferences, brochures, advertising, and internet sites, often developing and executing extensive strategies to pursue their goals. Through these strategies they hope to gain support for their policies and to promote understanding, compliance, and legitimacy. Increasingly, opinion research helps government officials design and execute their communications strategies.

    Although there are differences, the use of opinion research in government can be compared to private-sector market research. For instance, explains Michael Kirby:

    In anything to do with public communications, the polling is used in large measure as a market...

  10. 6 Opinion Research and Constitutional Renewal, 1980-1
    (pp. 80-103)

    This is the first of three chapters examining the uses of opinion research by the federal government in connection with specific policies: the constitutional agreement of 1981, the Goods and Services Tax, and gun control. Where the term ‘officials’ is used, it includes politicians, political aides, and public servants who served in government during part or all of the period under consideration and had some involvement with the relevant policy issue. Many of them now hold positions outside government.

    Before the 1980s, Canadian governments had tried many times to bring about constitutional changes.¹ A key goal was to patriate the...

  11. 7 Opinion Research and the Goods and Services Tax
    (pp. 104-130)

    V.O. Key argues that public opinion constrains, rather than determines, the decisions governments make.¹ He views public opinion as

    a system of dikes which channel public action or which fix a range of discretion within which government may act or within which debate at official levels may proceed. This conception avoids the error of personifying ‘public opinion’ as an entity that exercises initiative and in some way functions as an operating organism to translate its purposes into governmental action.

    Key rejects the presumption that public opinion exertsdirectinfluence on decisions about policy. Instead, he draws attention to the role...

  12. 8 Opinion Research and Gun Control
    (pp. 131-158)

    In 1995 the Chrétien government kept an election promise to strengthen Canada’s gun control laws by passing Bill C-68. Among its features were heavier penalties for firearms-related crimes, safe storage requirements, licensing of gun users, and expanded requirements for registration.¹ Since the passage of the bill, the government has been implementing and communicating the policy and its rationale of reducing violent crime.

    The gun control issue features an unusually sharp contrast between passive and active public opinion. Most opinion polls produced strong majorities in favour of stricter gun controls. For instance, an Angus Reid poll in October 1994 indicated that...

  13. 9 Constraints on the Use of Opinion Research in Government
    (pp. 159-183)

    Even if policy-makers were consistently motivated to use opinion research to guide their decisions about the content of public policy, and even if the research was not frequently trumped by other inputs into the policy process, there are other limitations on the use of polls and the desirability of them assuming a significant role in policy-making. These involve methodological problems in conducting opinion research, the characteristics of public opinion, difficulties in interpreting opinion research, some special concerns involving focus groups, the effects of Access to Information legislation on government opinion research, and sampling practices which are contrary to the normative...

  14. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 184-196)

    The widely held belief that opinion research regularly influences the substance of public policy is not entirely false. Nevertheless, this study has shown that it is in large part a misconception, even a myth. As one observer with both government and polling experience puts it, ‘The people who think that governments make decisions on the basis of polls are people who are not close enough to really see it and know it’¹ Or, in the words of another source with a background in both spheres, ‘The bottom line is that governments use polls not to decide what to do but...

  15. Appendix 1 Excerpts from a Federal Government Poll on the Constitution
    (pp. 197-199)
  16. Appendices 2.1-2.4 Polling on the Goods and Services Tax
    (pp. 200-203)
  17. Appendices 3.1-3.2 Polling on Gun Control
    (pp. 204-206)
  18. Appendix 4 Selected Interview Sources
    (pp. 207-210)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 211-248)
  20. Index
    (pp. 249-258)