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Polling to the People!

We pay vast sums so parties can poll. Their findings should be made public.

Peter MacLeod 10 Jul

Peter MacLeod is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University. He recently won the 2008 Public Policy Forums’ Young Leader’s Award and is the principal of the public consultation firm, MASS LBP.

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In 2004, the Canadian public bought out the party system. That was the year the Chrétien government introduced Bill C-24, which prohibited corporations and unions from political donations and put a price tag on every vote, earning the parties $1.75 per ballot per year.

Today, political parties receive anywhere from 40 per cent to 80 per cent of their revenues from the public treasury, effectively making the Canadian public a majority shareholder in each of the federal parties.

Like it or not, we pay for the bulk of those cranky television ads and gauzy mail-drops. As far as our federal parties go, Canadians pay the rent, employ the staff, run the photocopiers, and keep the coffee warm.

We also drop more than a few pennies in the cup every time the Tories decide to run a poll honing their message or the Liberals decide to dip their toes into the electoral waters.

Ravenous for polling data

For political parties, this thirst for the latest polling data, particularly in the lead-up to and during an election, is insatiable. As we’ve learned in the past few weeks, the appetite is so strong that during the last election the national Conservative campaign may have funneled money to several local ridings for the express purpose of buying polling from or for the national Conservative campaign.

Of course, purchasing election services, including polling, from a party’s HQ is a common and perfectly ethical practice. Washing the money through a riding in order to skirt spending limits and to earn a reimbursed election expense is another matter. Regardless of the letter of the law, this clearly goes against its spirit.

Public opinion research and mass advertising are the engine and wheel of the modern political machine. Both were implicated in the sponsorship scandal and it is no surprise to see them again implicated in the recent allegations surrounding the so-called in-and-out scheme.

Last year, as a consequence of the sponsorship scandal, the respected economist Daniel Paillé looked at the growth of public opinion research in the federal government. In December, he reported that over the past 15 years, federal government expenditures rose by a factor of seven, from $4 million to $31.5 million, while the number of research contracts awarded more than quintupled, from 90 in 2002 to 562 in 2007.

In response, the Public Works minister, Michel Fortier, announced in February that public opinion research expenditures would be slashed this year by one-third or $10 million.

Significantly, Paillé was not asked to review the money that parties themselves spend and no similar data is available.

Yet for years, many of Canada's pre-eminent political scientists have sounded the alarm that an over-reliance on partisan polling diminishes accountability, public participation in politics and the vitality of a party’s membership.

Create a public polling bank

For government departments, however, survey research can be a powerful and penetrating tool that helps to better align policies with the attitudes and appetites of Canadians.

Michael Adams, one of Canada’s most respected pollsters, worries that partisan and non-partisan opinion research has become conflated and sees the government’s recent pique as evidence of this conflation -- with the consequence that federal departments may be less responsive or attuned to the interests of Canadians.

Still, if public opinion research has become as Michael Adams claims, the "fifth estate" of mature democracies, it’s reasonable to conclude that all polling paid for with public funds should be submitted to greater scrutiny.

So here’s an idea that would allow the parties to do more than pay lip service to demands for greater accountability and transparency while also gumming up the gears of the polling-advertising machine.

Create a national polling bank -- an online public repository that is indexed, easy-to-search and maintained by the Library of Parliament.

Already the Federal Accountability Act includes a provision mandating that data collected from government-sponsored public opinion research must be deposited within six months with either the chief librarian or archivist of Canada.

This is a good first step but we should go two steps further.

First, we should shorten the window to three months for government-sponsored public opinion research. Three months is enough time to perform any necessary or explanatory analysis without allowing the scent to go cold on timely and potentially newsworthy data.

Second, we should demand that all political parties in receipt of public funds comply with this regulation, fully disclosing the details of their own public opinion research activities, or of research conducted on their behalf. In the case of partisan polling, the mandatory window would be further reduced to one month or less.

Transparency. It’s popular

In effect, with a polling bank in place, all of the partisan polling that currently goes on off-the-radar but is largely paid for with public funds would be put in full public view. Done properly, it would quickly temper the governing-by-the-numbers instinct and encourage the parties to find better ways to reconnect with their roots and the public-at-large.

The public opinion research industry would be smart to take the lead on this issue and put itself above the fray. Having just lost a third of its federal business to the sponsorship debacle, full transparency is a good insurance policy and in the long term, a much cheaper way to go.

Holdouts will argue that polling, like mass advertising, is an indispensable part of the modern political campaign and that a party’s privacy is sacrosanct. Of course, with cynicism on the rise and voter turnout at record lows, it’s a hard to make the case that the modern political campaign is really working for the people or that parties are ever at their best behind closed doors.

The Canadian public now owns our parties. As principal shareholders, it’s time to start calling the shots.

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