Published by Christopher Alcantara and Michael Morden in the May 2015 issue of Policy Options.
When the Supreme Court rendered its Tsilhqot’in decision in June 2014, the federal government’s terse response almost seemed delivered through gritted teeth, while many Canadians experienced a familiar sense of uncertainty and quiet apprehension. But most indigenous leaders and commentators reacted with public celebrations and optimism, seeing the decision as a victory for their communities.
Our view, almost a year later, is that all Canadians and indigenous peoples should celebrate the decision.
Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.
The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.
This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading →
In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.
This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.
Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.
Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.
In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.
And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.
Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.
Lecture Dec. 3, 2014 at University of Edinburgh Business School.
Abstract: The Imagined Electorate: Values, Perceived Boundaries and the Regional Rehabilitation of Political Culture
Political culture is often seen as a concept whose time has come and clearly gone, instinctively useful but difficult to treat with precision. Researchers, who have typically employed it as a tool to compare states, have largely been silent on how it might operate at the sub-state level, notwithstanding the considerable research attempting to map regional political cultures within pluri-national or federal states. And yet addressing political culture below the level of the state forces one to explore many of its unanswered questions: How do we know when political cultures exist?; How do we delineate their boundaries?: How important is evidence of distinctiveness? This lecture explores political culture as it operates below the level of the state, identifies the existence of two forms of regional political cultures, identifies markers by which we can identify and delineate political cultures and highlights the importance of perception. It provides data demonstrating that citizens believe they possess distinct values from those in neighbouring regions, even in the absence of meaningful variations in attitudes. The result is an imagined electorate for whom legislators then legislate. Far from proving that regional political cultures do not exist, such imagined perceptions of difference form a central component of the subjective dimensions of politics that political culture as a concept was originally designed to capture. Throughout it argues that by exploring political culture below the level of states we can rehabilitate it as a tool for political scientists.
Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We address this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.
Abstract: Several prominent voices have called for a democratization of science through deliberative processes that include a diverse range of perspectives and values. We bring these scholars into conversation with extant research on democratic deliberation in political theory and the social sciences. In doing so, we identify systematic barriers to the effectiveness of inclusive deliberation in both scientific and political settings. We are particularly interested in what we call misidentified dissent, where deliberations are starkly framed at the outset in terms of dissenting positions without properly distinguishing the kinds of difference and disagreement motivating dissent.
Abstract: Far-right parties blame immigrants for unemployment. We test the effects of the unemployment rate on public receptivity to this rhetoric. The dependent variable is anti-immigrant sentiment. The key independent variables are the presence of a far-right party and the level of unemployment. Building from influential elite-centered theories of public opinion, the central hypothesis is that a high unemployment rate predisposes citizens to accept the anti-immigrant rhetoric of far-right parties, and a low unemployment rate predisposes citizens to reject this rhetoric. The findings from cross-sectional, cross-time and cross-level analyses are consistent with this hypothesis. It is neither the unemployment rate nor the presence of a far-right party that appears to drive anti-immigrant sentiment; rather, it is the interaction between the two.
Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.
Introduction: Defining a particular relationship between nature and society, sustainability is closely linked to the social construction and social use of nature because humans require an ecosystem (i.e., limited areas of interaction between all living organisms and nonliving components such as water, rocks, air, minerals) that supplies sufficient renewable resources (e.g., clean air, water) to survive and nonrenewable resources (e.g., minerals, natural gas) for the production of goods. Through the advent of modernization, industrialism, and the development of capitalism (especially in the neoliberal form it has taken since the late 1970s), the social construction of nature has shifted from a perspective of a living organism with which humans live in harmony (e.g., mother earth) to an instrumental view (i.e., nature as machine).
Abstract: This article examines the rise of more strategic, professional and politically sensitive communications in the Government of Alberta and argues that citizen demands for transparency and participation are also reasons for the increased importance of strategic government communications. Accommodating these demands in the context of traditional representative democracy requires politically sensitive staff who can manage processes without jeopardizing the government’s re-election or policy agenda. This article draws on analyses of government documents, interviews and the archives of premiers Getty and Klein.
Abstract: Political advisors to heads of government occupy such a privileged sphere of influence that their role is a source of consternation among democratic idealists. Interviews with advisors to prime ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK inform a small body of comparative literature about political advising in the Commonwealth. The authors find that first ministers consider input from many advisors and therefore the counsel of any one advisor is of limited impact. Further research is needed to understand the extent to which these agents project the power of the executive office and make decisions on the principal’s behalf.
Abstract: Ontario’s general election on Oct. 6, 2011, produced a hung parliament and left much unresolved. The Progressive Conservative party under Tim Hudak entered the election year with promising prospects, and the PCs won 37 seats, 10 more than in 2007, yet failed to beat out the Liberals. The New Democratic Party under Andrea Horwath also enjoyed a much improved seat count of 17 elected members to Queen’s Park. Combined, the incumbent Liberals were re- elected, but reduced to a minority of 53 seats, one seat shy of a majority, and the first minority government in Ontario politics since 1985. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempt to secure a majority of seats in the form of 2012 by-elections failed, and shortly thereafter he resigned, leaving his Liberals and Ontario politics on stand-by for a possible non-confidence vote and, consequently, a new election. This review examines how the 2011 result unfolded. We place attention on campaign dynamics and issue salience.
Abstract: My aim here is to use the city as an analytic category, a lens through which to examine the principle of subsidiarity and the justification of federalism. I will argue that two powerful justifications for subsidiarity seem as if they should be mutually supporting, but in fact pull us in different directions with respect to the justification of particular institutional strategies for realizing autonomy for distinct groups. I conclude by drawing out some implications of my analysis for the justification of federalism. I begin by explaining the ideas of subsidiarity and federalism, and explaining my chief aims more fully, before turning to cities to advance my analysis.