The pitfalls of a referendum

Published Dec. 18, 2013, in The Hamilton Spectator

Hamilton joins a growing list of cities all over North America where municipal water fluoridation is not just an important public health practice, but also a source of controversy. While Hamilton councillors recently rejected a proposal to hold a referendum on the issue, they turned over this discussion to the city’s medical officer of health to investigate the feasibility of a citizen task force, which will study the issue further.

A task force would, in our view, lead to far better decisions than a straight-off referendum. Although referendums can be powerful measures for citizens to govern themselves, they do not always produce an “informed” decision. More often than not, people do not carefully weigh the costs and benefits of various activities. Instead, they form judgments by using quick mental shortcuts.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls this “thinking quickly” rather than “thinking slowly.” Clearly, everyday citizens can rise to the occasion to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of public health initiatives like fluoridation: they just need the context, time, resources and opportunity to do so. And they rarely have much of that.

Read More

Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

Continue reading

This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

Education, Cynicism and Government Advertising

The Canadian Press’ Dean Beeby had an interesting story the other day on a survey that attempted to gauge the efficacy of one of the advertising campaigns promoting the government’s Economic Action Plan (EAP). He obtained the analysis provided to the federal government by Harris Decima via the Access to Information Act and he kindly forwarded it on to me. Although we don’t have the individual level data, the aggregate data provide some interesting insights into the relationships between government advertising and public opinion.

The analysis is required by government policy to be conducted on every ad campaign, ostensibly to gauge its “efficacy”.

First, the top line numbers.

62% of respondents report having heard of the EAP, although there was a massive regional variation in this number. Only 49% of Quebec respondents had heard about it while 72% in the ROC had heard about it. Only 38% of respondents recalled seeing the ad that was being evaluated, and, of those who had seen it, 6% of them actually “did” something in response to it. 32% of those spoke with other voters and 20% complained about the ad. In an earlier post I asked why governments bother to advertise. There, I showed that the level of federal government advertising had no correlation with stated vote intention for the party in power. This evidence suggests that government advertising doesn’t necessarily move people to make use of further information or government programs.
Continue reading

There are some more interesting relationships going on here, though. For example, of those who had seen the ad, education was directly correlated with believing that the primary motivation behind the ad was government self-promotion. Those with lower levels of education were far more likely to see the ad as being about job creation and training program, but this changed for respondents with higher levels of education who were more likely to cite self-promotion as the motivation.

As education increases, so does the likelihood that someone would see the ad as being for the purpose of self-promotion.

As education increases, so does the likelihood that someone would see the ad as being for the purpose of self-promotion.

The interesting thing here is that both interpretations are probably right. If you look at the ad, it really does only talk about job creation and training programs. But let’s not kid ourselves, there’s an awful lot of self-promotion going on. So I don’t think this is fair to say that this is a story of greater democratic competence by those with higher levels of education who are somehow able to see through the government’s actions. I wonder if this is a manifestation of an increased inclination to political cynicism.

There is quite a lot of political research that suggests that news coverage that emphasizes the strategy as opposed to the substances of politics contributes to political cynicism in the population (Capella and Jamieson 1997), but this is slightly different. First, this deals with government advertising and second this deals more with how media materials are interpreted, rather than with whether they have any affect on citizens.

What makes the finding I highlighted above particularly interesting is that there is some substantial evidence that levels of education and political sophistication (a different but related phenomenon) are have both become recently correlated with levels of political cynicism see (inconsistently in Capella and Jamieson (1997), here in the Netherlands). Much more impressively, a cross-national survey of trust in government over time, Dalton found that the decline in trust in government across the industrialized world has been located among those with higher levels of education.

To the extent that this is true, this is exactly the opposite to the dominant assumption and empirical finding of post-war political science that assumed (and often documented) that trust in government was located in higher social classes and among those with higher levels of education (see this study from Oregon in 1961). This is a profound transformation and it introduces new complexities to governance. It’s possible that this loss of trust is an increase in democratic competence, but there are costs associated with it as well.

This kind of result should also give governments another reason to question whether they really want to shell out millions and millions more for government advertising; with a more educated populace, a good chunk of people are just going to see it as being about self-promotion.

The Limits of Evidence-Based Policymaking

There’s been a lot of commentary on the consequences of the Rogoff-Reinhart error, which is seriously undermining the empirical basis for the austerity program that has swept the US, Canada and Europe. I think this episode highlights the limits of evidence-based policy-making.

One clue that there is deep limits to the concept is that I’ve never actually heard a policy-maker claim that they are making policy without evidence. It seems that everyone justifies their policy preferences with some sort of evidence; it’s just that there is always a debate about what constitutes evidence. I also think that many liberal (and here I mean, small-l liberals with a strong commitment to equating justice with procedure, rather than outcome) scholars and citizens adhere to an ideal of evidence-based policymaking. I think it’s because they feel that somehow the nastiness of politics can be minimized in public policy making if we can all just agree on the facts and procedures for adjudicating facts.

Here I’ll make two claims: evidence can only inform, it can never resolve, political debate. And evidence-based policy-making will always be influenced, if not, determined by pre-existing values, rather than the other way around.

If evidence really could influence policy to the degree that the adherents of evidence-based policy-making claim it can, then we would be seeing a much quicker reversal of economic policy given that one of the essential pieces of evidence for austerity has been shown to be, well, wrong. Aside from this in Italy, austerity remains the dominant economic policy.
Continue reading

It’s true it is early days and this development may ultimately shift global economic policy, but, the longer it takes, the more it proves my point. Evidence cannot be decisive for policy-making; instead, it interacts with deeper values which are of greater import. In terms of austerity, it wasn’t R-R that told policy-makers to adopt austerity; I assert that it fit with widespread, deeply-held values that a good life is one that is lived modestly with an emphasis on earning and saving money.

I write this post only partially motivated by the fall-out from R+R. But this episode reinforces some of the conclusions that I’ve drawn out of my ongoing research into the politics of the regulation of BPA in Canada and the US. Clearly, evidence mattered in that case. Both sides – those in favour of and those opposed to stricter regulations – marshalled as much scientific evidence as possible to support their claims. And both sides are guilty of calling the other “anti-scientific”. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes evidence. Those who assert there is a great threat posed by exposure to BPA often rely on studies which often do show adverse effects from exposure to BPA, but base this conclusion on studies that only administered one or two different doses of BPA. When these small studies show a positive relationship between exposure and effect, environmental activists seize on them because they have already made value commitments that we are constantly being poisoned by toxins and that modern society is killing us.

It has to be emphasized: there are powerful structural forces that govern the scientific endeavour that leads to the publication of these kinds of exciting findings based on small sample sizes and dose ranges. Put yourself in the shoes of a new, untenured, natural scientist. You need to get grant money and you need to get publications. In tough economic times and the competitive scientific job market these pressures can be excruciating. But null findings just won’t cut it. Journals that are owned by a small oligopoly of media companies want citations to papers that they publish and tend not to attract a lot of notice. Findings that show that a substance does have an effect is likely to get cited.

The vast majority of positive findings are published when they show effects that are “statistically significant at the .05 level”. This means that there is only a 5 per cent chance that that published finding will have occurred by chance alone. But what that means is that even if scientists are entirely objective, then 1 in 20 scientific studies will be a false positive. However, scientists are not entirely objective. Too often, null results from studies are shelved and only the statistically significant studies are published. But, if we are never told how many null findings the scientist received before getting a statistically significant finding, then we have no way of determining whether or not the finding could be random noise or a real finding. Ben Goldacre has pointed out that this badly plagues pharmaceutical research, but Ioannides has found similar problems in medical research.

There are two wonderful images from a presentation to an expert working group on BPA from June 2012 that prove this point better than I ever could. This is around 50 random values ranging from 80 to about 145 plotted on the y-axis.
Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 2.15.49 PM
Would you say that there is any pattern evident? Of course not.

Now, would you say the same about the following four values?

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 2.15.54 PM

That looks to me like BPA/coffee/smoking/cosmetics causes cancer/obesity/heart attacks!

Except the values are drawn from the same randomly selected 20 values in the first figure. Look closely, I can see at least two sequences of 4 randomly generated values that increase monotonically creating the impression of a linear, cause-and-effect relationship.

This is what gets published, even if it’s the product of random noise.

There are ways to guard against this, but they essentially involve doing large-scale, multi-generation rodent studies with a wide range of doses. But this costs a lot of money and sadly,the only people who have this kind of money to do research (which often results in null findings) are corporations who obviously have a strong interest in the publication of such findings when substances they produce are under scrutiny.

Just because it is funded by corporations does not mean the “evidence” is invalid according to strict scientific standards, but we’re not dealing in science: we’re dealing in politics. And this fact certainly excites activist groups, politicians, journalists, rival scientists and voters who see these kinds of studies not as “evidence” of no findings, but of “evidence” of collusion and corruption.

Into this vortex of institutional, economic and value-based judgements, politicians and regulators are called on to make a decision. They have developed some tools to improve the role of “evidence” in policy making, primarily through the use of systematic literature reviews and tools to evaluate the merits of different type of evidence.

But as I stated before, this always interacts with pre-existing values. An excellent example of this in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. There, the Ministers of Health and the Environment are required to apply both the precautionary principle and the weight-of-evidence approach when publishing risk assessments of potentially toxic substances. The former, in one form, requires (some might say allows) regulatory action even based on inconclusive “evidence”. The latter requires regulators to rationally weight the merits of “evidence”, discounting weak “evidence” such as studies with small dose ranges, and according greater weight to large-scale, more credible, more reliable studies.

With the requirement to apply both principles entrenched in Canadian legislation, you can see how “evidence” can never answer the regulator’s question of what type of policy she should adopt. There is always a debate about what constitutes “evidence”. Those who are convinced that inconclusive “evidence” is actually sufficient “evidence” for action, will simply demand that the state act, those who disagree that the “evidence” is conclusive will simply state so. There actually is no “evidence” that can reconcile these two positions, because this is actually never about “evidence”; politics is about values and interests.

That’s why the R+R findings made such a splash in the first place, why their refutation won’t matter much, why BPA was deemed “toxic” even though the scrreening assessment explicitly states that it is safe at current levels of exposure and, frankly, why evidence-based policy-making is not so much impossible, just illusory. It can’t exist as the kind of decisive resolution to political challenges people want it to be.

RBC foreign workers controversy a sign of an increasingly anxious middle class

Published on Apr. 12, 2013, in The Huffington Post Canada

The public’s visceral response to RBC’s foreign worker scandal is about more than the sullied reputation of Canada’s largest bank. It could well be a cautionary tale for Corporate Canada on the volatile mood of Canadians grown weary of post-recession cost-cutting and job losses at companies that are still turning healthy profits.

The Royal Bank of Canada was thrust into the spotlight for its decision to outsource 45 information technology jobs to iGate Corp., whose workers in India were reportedly brought to Canada under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to receive training from the very RBC employees they were replacing. It is illegal for a company to bring temporary foreign workers into the country if it puts Canadians out of work.

After days of public outrage and negative headlines, CEO Gord Nixon issued an apology on customers’ log-in pages and in national newspapers Friday.

Read More

Public Opinion, Precaution and Toxicology

There is news today that a coroner in New Zealand formally ruled that the excessive consumption of Coca Cola led to the untimely death of Natasha Harris three years ago. Harris, it seems, developed a nasty habit of drinking up to 10 litres a day. “I find that when all the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died” is what the coroner determined.

So what does this have to do with a blog about Canadian, politics and public opinion? Because this tragic incident illustrates a bedrock principle of toxicology that citizens, journalists and politicians often forget when our attention turns to issues of concern with possibly toxic substances. That principle is “the dose makes the poison.” It was formulated in the 16th century by the Swiss-German chemist Paracelsus and it holds that all substances (Coca-Cola included) are toxic in some quantity. Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can be toxic when enough has been consumed. This poor soul died from the excessive consumption of water during a brutal hazing ritual in New York. From this observation, the traditional role of toxicology has developed which is to ascertain at what level of exposure any given substance causes adverse effects.

With the rise of concerns about toxic substances in the post-World War II era, scientists have discovered some substances that deviate from this principle (see tamoxifen, an important drug in chemotherapy). But these effects are rare, difficult to demonstrate and the scientific debates that surround them are heated and complex. But when issues shift into the public and media spheres, the complex science behind these assertions, sadly, usually gets lost in the shuffle.
Continue reading

There are multiple reasons for why this is. One reason is our own inability to perceive risks rationally. There is so much literature on the psychology of human risk perception that it is difficult to know where to start, but I might recommend this thispaper or this book. The long and short of the field of risk perception is that humans get very frightful about lots of things that actually present very little danger. After September 11th, Americans turned away from planes for their long trips and hopped into their cars, leading to a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in the months following.

Chemicals are one of those things that people fear a great deal. Ask people if they think the colourless, odourless chemical dihydrogen monoxide (the ingestion of which is the cause of thousands of deaths each year) should be banned and you’d be surprised (and a little concerned) at the number of people who would agree.

So when the public and the mass media turn their attention to issues of possible harm from exposure to chemicals, fears can be stoked, perspective can be lost and can lead, ultimately, to over- and unnecessary regulation of products and activity. For example, I was able to show in this paper that within-state newspaper coverage of Bisphenol A was positively linked to the chance that a US state legislature would introduce or adopt legislation banning products made with BPA the following year. It showed (again) the important role that increased media salience can have on policy changes. This, even though, scientific information suggests that exposure to BPA is hundres, if not thousands of times lower than the level at which there is a consensus that it causes adverse effects in rats (see here).

This research area is rife for investigation and it’s become a long-term project I’m working on, so I’m going to have a lot more to say about this in the future. I thought the news about Ms. Harris’ tragic death due to the excessive consumption of Coca-Cola was a useful way to set the stage for more thoughts and research to come.

Idle No More?

The Idle No More protests have dropped off the public and media agenda with almost as much speed as they burst onto it. Below is the trend for Canadian Google searches for Idle No More from December to February.

One of the fascinating things that I noticed about the Idle No More movement was its obsession with process, rather than outcome. It seemed to be that activists behind Idle No More spent at least as much time distinguishing themselves from their colleagues in the Assembly of First Nations in terms of mobilizing tactics as they did in terms of goals. Here’s Dr. Pamela Palmater, an Associate Professor of political science at Ryerson University and a former candidate for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

The Idle No More movement, initially started by women, is a peoples’ movement that empowers Indigenous peoples to stand up for their Nations, lands, treaties and sovereignty. This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do. There are no colonial-based lines imposed on who joins the movement and thus issues around on & off-reserve, status and non-status, treaty and non-treaty, man or woman, elder or youth, chief or citizen does not come into play. This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.

Further, Palmater claims that this organizing principle is rooted in actual, pre-contact cultural practices of First Nations.

To my mind, the true governing power of our Indigenous Nations has always been exercised through the voice of our peoples. The leaders were traditionally more like spokespeople which represented to views and decisions of the people. In this way, the Idle No More movement, led by grassroots peoples connects very closely to our Indigenous traditional values.


Yet, what makes this peoples’ movement so unique, is also what makes it so difficult for many Canadians and the media to understand. Generally speaking, people understand that each government, group or organization has a leader, a clearly defined hierarchy and rules about who can say and do what. This movement on the other hand, is very organic in nature and first and foremost respects the sovereignty of individual Indigenous peoples and their Nations to participate how and when they choose, if at all. This will mean that some First Nations leaders will choose not to participate, but some of their members will. It could mean one First Nation community organizes teach-ins whereas First Nations peoples living in urban areas will get together and organize flash mob round dances.

I’m neither an anthropologist nor am I of First Nations heritage, so I won’t comment on the social structure of pre-contact First nations. But, one thing that I do know from my research into the nature of environmental movements and the affiliated tensions with other elements of the older left (i.e. trade unions) is that this commitment to “new” forms of non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic organization is neither new, nor unique. In fact, it’s become quite old hat. This rhetoric and organizing principle has motivated every “new” social movement in western democracies including, but not limited to, the Occupy movement, the anti-globalization movement, the environmental movement and the women’s movement.
Continue reading

Occupy Wall Street describes itself as: “a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand. It is not for sale….We wish to clarify that Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate or organization. Our only affiliation is with the people.”

Here’s a quote from the discussion paper that launched the New Politics Initiative, an attempt to remake the NDP in a new, “movement”-style form of organization.

Our system of governance fosters a stratum of professional politicians and technocrats on one hand, and an inactive citizenry on the other; it promotes hierarchical and bureaucratic forms of government administration; above all, it tolerates and even promotes the concentration of private wealth and power which undermines the ability of Canadians to control their own lives on a day-to-day basis.

The NPI’s opening manifesto called for not just new policies, but new politics: “Indeed, we see the crucial contribution of the NPI as sparking the creation of more democratic and active structures and processes, and developing entirely new ways of “doing” politics — rather than in trying to provide a top-down recipe book of preferred policy positions.”

In the first programm of the German Greens, a political party that was explicitly an “anti-party party” with deep roots in protest movements against nuclear weapons and industrialization, tried, in its first program to set up structures that would guarantee decentralized decision-making and the prevention of the establishment of a party hierarchy. “Grassroots democratic politics means a strengthened impmlementation of decentralized, direct democracy. We start from the assumption that a primary importance must be assigned to grassroots decisions. Easily accessible, decentralized grassroots units (at the town and county level) are given wide-ranging autonomy and rights to self-administration.”

And just yesterday, I came across this essay from 1972, called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” that bemoaned the obsession with unstructured discussion and activism groups within the women’s movements, pointing out that non-hierarchical groups often simply replace formal, with informal, structures of power “The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology.”

Contrary to what Palmater says, the obsession within Idle No More of doing politics in a new way is neither unique nor new. Rather, it is one episode in a long line of successive protest movements that are operating in a context where the activists are highly educated and competent. Such activists are, understandably, hesitant to just subsume themselves into a bureaucracy and do what bureaucracies require of them – carry out tasks in a routinized and standardized fashion. Moreover, there is a widespread sense that existing bureaucracies of the left (political parties and trade unions, in particular although similar complaints have been levied against the AFN) have somehow failed to deliver the goods. Public choice theorists successfully drove the point home that bureaucracies can tend to serve their own interests (see any episode of Yes, Minister). This is obviously something of which to be wary. And where people on the right drew the conclusion that increased market delivery of public services was the answer, people on the left seem to have drawn the conclusion in favour of more strict egalitarian forms of organization.

But there are fundamental limitations here. Bureaucracies are far more capable of sustaining long-term coordinated action than any kind of strict egalitarian organization. The deeply bureaucratic Catholic Church has withstood two thousand years of turmoil, division and social change while more flatly-organized evangelical and store-front churches regularly rise and fall. Similarly, Mancur Olson, in his study, the Logic of Collective Action, pointed out that workers are generally supportive of measures that force them to pay dues to a union (Michigan’s new right-to-work legislation which abolished this precise policy is widely opposed), but tend to avoid doing the work necessary of keeping the local going. Go to any meeting of a union local and you will only ever find a fraction of the employees bothering to show up to take responsibility for running the organization. The reason for the discrepancy is that people are, on some level, aware that they themselves cannot be trusted to provide the commitment, resources and long-term organizational capacity to bolster an organization that they know acts in their interests.

Bureaucracies can be frustrating, annoying, self-interested and deeply conservative. They are also a hallmark of modernity. If Idle No More wishes to remain vibrant and capable of pursuing its goals into the future, rather than disentegrating into irrelevance, it might consider formalizing some of its structures to marshall resources for a sustained conflict.

How Generous is Canada’s Refugee Asylum Process?

In a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson commented on Canada’s refugee system. The following is an analysis of the history of the myth that this system is “generous” and provides some data to assess its veracity. It is written by Edward Koning, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph

In discussing Minister Jason Kenney’s new plans for refugee reform, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson opened with perhaps the most oft-heard cliché in Canadian discourse on immigration: “Canada has had one of the most generous – if not the most generous – refugee-determination systems in the world.” In that light, so Simpson reasons, we should not be too critical about Kenney’s sharpening of refugee regulations.

The line of reasoning sounds awfully familiar. At least since the 1990s, politicians and public commentators have justified restrictions in refugee policy by referring to Canada’s alleged unmatched generosity. In debating a refugee reform in early 1994, for example, the Reform Party’s immigration critic Art Hanger stated that Canada accepts “numbers of refugee class immigrants that are virtually unheard of in the industrialized world”. More recently, when presenting the ‘Balanced Refugee Reform Act’ in April 2010, Minister Kenney began by boasting that Canada’s generous approach to the protection of refugees is “perhaps unique in the democratic world”.
Continue reading

It is curious that the argument has not lost any power. The last two decades have seen several encompassing refugee reforms in Canada, which have, among other things, narrowed the definition of a refugee, increased identification controls, facilitated deportation, limited the possibilities for appealing a rejection, and given the Minister more individual leeway in deportation decisions. But it appears you can always make the case for yet another reform by arguing the extant system is overly generous by comparative standards.

The problem is, of course, that it is not true. According to 2010 data, Canada is number 7 among OECD countries in its acceptance rate: it approved roughly 38 percent of all asylum claims. This is indeed high by comparative standards, albeit still four places short of the podium. Acceptance rates are difficult to interpret, however, because they mask self-selection effects (the high score for Israel, for example, reflects that refugees do not apply for asylum in Israel unless they are sure their claim will be accepted) and supply-side differences (Turkey scores high on this measure, for example, because the share of applicants with a legitimate claim is larger). For that reason, it is more instructive to look at overall intake levels. On these indicators, Canada scores around the OECD average. Relative to the size of the population, Canada takes in five times as few asylum seekers as number 1, Sweden. And if we look at the number of asylum seekers as a share of the entire immigrant inflow, Canada’s relative standing is even worse.

Acceptance rate
(UNHCR, 2010)

Intake of asylum seekers per 10,000 citizens (OECD,

Intake of asylum seekers as % of total inflow (OECD,

1. Israel (100)

1. Sweden (33.9)

1. Greece (44.7)

2. Turkey (59.9)

2. Norway (20.6)

2. Sweden (40.3)

3. Netherlands

3. Belgium

3. France (35.4)

4. Australia

4. Switzerland

4. Turkey (30.9)

5. Portugal

5. Luxembourg

5. Finland

7. Canada (37.9)

13. Canada (6.6)

16. Canada (8.0)

None of this is to say that we should leave the refugee system as it is. There are few countries with a refugee backlog the size of Canada’s (according to UNHCR data, only Greece and Germany do worse in this respect). Simpson is right, therefore, in arguing that we should seriously consider proposals to expedite the determination process. It is difficult to have a serious debate, however, when its participants stubbornly perpetuate a patently false myth.

The Changing Newspaper Coverage Of Theresa Spence’s Hunger Strike

Canada-First Nations relationships are obviously the topic of the day. Besides the very serious substantive issues that are under discussion, I noticed one interesting trend in the public debate, that is, the struggle over whether Chief Spence’s diet constituted a genuine “hunger strike” or something else. In a lot of media coverage, journalists have been characterizing her protest as a “liquid only diet” or “liquid diet” or “forgoing solid foods”, rather than a hunger strike.

What’s at stake in this debate over how her protest is framed is fairly clear. According to media reports, Chief Spence has been subsisting on fish broth and herbal tea (one news story says she is taking vitamins as well), providing some of her opponents the opportunity to denigrate her commitment to her political and policy goals. I think the argument goes that a “genuine” hunger striker would take, at most, water. Questioning whether she is, in fact, engaged in a hunger strike, is not just a debate about semantics, but about the level of Spence’s sincerity and commitment to her policy goals.

I personally am inclined to see this as a genuine hunger strike, but that’s not the point here. I was more interested in whether any kind of patterns were detectable in how journalists framed her protests. Specifically, I wondered whether there was a change over time in the newspaper framing.

Below are the number of newspaper stories in the database Canadian Newsstand from December 13th, 2012 to January 14th, 2013 that responded to the search string “Theresa Spence”. This database includes both the Globe and Mail, the National Post, most of the metro urban dailies, a lot of local community newspapers, but, importantly, none of the Sun chain of newspapers.


Not surprisingly, coverage has been building gradually since Chief Spence began her protest, culminating in the last week or so with the publication of the audit of her band’s finances, more protests from the Idle No More network and the meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.

Then, I combed through the articles looking for terms like “hunger” and “hunger strike” as well as terms like “liquid”, “liquids only” and “liquid diet”. I calculated the daily average frequencies of both sets of terms and plotted them against each other below.


So this plots the “average” number of occurrences of terms referring, more or less to a “hunger strike” versus terms referring to “liquid diets”, taking “liquid food” and forgoing “solid food” in Canadian newspaper stories that mention “Theresa Spence” over this time period. Clearly, references to Spence’s protest as a hunger strike have declined substantially, with frequencies after the publication of the audit much lower than prior to the audit.

The lines are smoothing lines; although the solid line suggests the decline started before the publication of the audit, I think that’s illusory. To me, there’s a clear break in the points before and after the publication of the audit. In terms of phrases that refer to a “liquid diet”, the smoothing line suggests a slow, monotonic increase in that sentiment.

It’s also important to remember: both of these trends occur in the context of a lot more coverage, period, post-audit (see the first figure). But while there was more newspaper stories that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once after the audit, references to her going on a “hunger strike’ dropped off dramatically, while references to her only taking “liquid foods” continued a slight increase.

So, how to square all of this? I think two things are really important. First, it seems like the publication of the audit weakened Spence’s credibility, hence, the declining references to her on a “hunger strike” while references to her being on a “liquid diet” increased. But, perhaps more importantly, the sheer volume of newspaper coverage that appeared post-audit suggests that Spence was sidelined somewhat as events overtook her. Between January 7th and January 14th, Canadians witnessed protests by Idle No More, a meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister and some conflicts within the Assembly of First Nations. It seems like newspaper coverage during that time referenced Theresa Spence, began framing her protest equally as a “hunger strike” or as a “liquid diet”, and probably sidelined her, period.

Finally, it seems like this is an important lesson in how source credibility (as defined by journalists) is so crucial in structuring Canadian journalism.

**Methodological notes:
I searched Canadian Newsstand for all newspaper articles with full-text that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once. Then, I used the tm package to analyze the texts within. I looked for terms that referenced hunger, hunger strike or hunger striking and, essentially, averaged them over the number of stories that appeared each day. Then I did the same with terms like “liquid”, “liquid foods”, and “liquid diet”.

Why do Governments Advertise?

I ask this question because a federal government advertising campaign is underway touting the federal government’s Economic Action Plan (see here).
Jonathan Rose had quite a few reasons in his book Making Pictures In Our Heads. From memory, a few he listed were administrative reasons, policy reasons and political reasons. The first is almost never controversial; if anything, governments get into trouble when they don’t engage in this kind of advertising. Under this category are things like notices of regulatory hearings and job advertisements. The second can become controversial depending on how and when it’s done, but, changing citizen behaviour via persuasion is a perfectly legitimate – even efficient – policy tool. Policy mechanisms such as regulation and taxation are other tools, but have their own disadvantages. An example here is the constant government advertising campaigns to remind you to get your flu shot or to stop smoking.

Continue reading

Then there are the political reasons. What I mean here by “political” is roughly synonymous with “electoral;” in these cases, governments advertise to try to improve their standings in public opinion and their chances at the next election. These kinds of advertising campaigns are curious beasts for many reasons. First, no government ever openly says that they are advertising politically: rather they cloak their justifications by saying that the advertising campaigns belong in one of the first two categories, or they often talk about “engaging” citizens in a form of “dialogue.” They are also curious beasts because often, even when governments engage in perfectly legitimate advertising campaigns of the first two types, members of the opposition and the media often simply deny that’s the case and argue that the real motivation for the advertising campaign is political. Whether an advertising campaign properly belongs in the “political” category or in the more acceptable policy or regulatory category is effectively a political question (and here I’m using the term in a sense that is much broader than just electoral). In effect, an advertising campaign becomes political if the media, the opposition and citizens succeed in making it political.

But the advertising campaigns are curious for a third reason, namely, they tend not to work. Federal government expenditures on advertising are listed on the chart below.

Advertising and public opinion

From a high in 2002-2003, advertising dropped dramatically, in large part because of the reaction generated by the sponsorship scandal (which was, you will recall, primarily about corruption in the field of government advertising). The federal government at that time reduced and then put a temporary moratorium on government advertising. With that moratorium lifted, the federal Conservatives started to increase spending on advertising fairly quickly. The Conservatives attribute the increase in 2009-2010 to an ad campaign about the H1N1 virus and the recession and the accompanying stimulus package (the Economic Action Plan). Are those legitimate? That’s just a political question. I take no position on the matter.

But it’s curious to note the second line on the chart, which charts public satisfaction with the federal government in the Environics Focus Canada series. Specifically, it’s the proportion of respondents who were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the federal government in the quarter immediately following the fiscal year in which the expenditures occurred. The idea here is to see if one fiscal year’s expenditures is correlated with public sentiment following that fiscal year.

It looks to me like there really isn’t any kind of correlation. The Liberals slashed government spending between 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 with no corresponding drop in sentiment the following year. The Conservatives increased spending in their first year in office (2006-2007) but their popularity went down – sharply – the following year. Then, between 2007 and 2009, government advertising moderated a little bit, but there was a sharp rebound in sentiment toward the Conservative government.

This is really rough data. It would be better to include all the quarterly data from the question, but the point is, I think a solid one. Government advertising in one year doesn’t guarantee improved public sentiment in the quarter following that fiscal year. There are lots of reasons for this. One of them is the newspaper story I linked to at the top, i.e. launching government advertising campaigns when they lack public support creates their own opposition that probably drowns out any gain a government might make in convincing citizens that they’re “doing a great job!” There are other reasons as well and I stumbled across five of them in a very interesting report in the Provincial Archives of Alberta during my dissertation research. It was written by Frank Calder, then the head of the Alberta’s government public affairs agency and it was meant for incoming premier Don Getty in 1985. He was warning the new premier not to heed advice by people within his own government that the party’s dwindling public support in the wake of Lougheed’s resignation could be improved by more aggressive government advertising. Calder argued this wouldn’t work because:

  1. There was a raw limit to the number of government programmes that could be promoted
  2. people don’t actually care all that much about what the government is doing
  3. It’s better to have programs in place that helps citizens get the information they want, when they want it, rather than hitting them with advertising campaigns
  4. that money for promotion is tight in situations when governments are tightening their belts
  5. and that the best way to “sell” something is to not look like you’re “selling” it at all.

Calder is an interesting guy. He was one of Peter Lougheed’s long-time advisors and a senior civil servant in the Alberta government. Today, he heads a leading Alberta advertising agency, Calder Bateman. And the advice he gave Don Getty in 1985 was sage; advice that the federal Conservatives would do well to follow.

I started this post with a question: Why do governments advertise? There are lots of prosaic reasons why they do, political reasons are among them. But the question is also a rhetorical one, not meant to be answered, given evidence that government advertising has a limited capacity to sway people to your political position. In that sense, I really wonder: why do governments advertise?