Poll Used to Support Bill C-377 Was Flawed

A poll that was allegedly the basis for proposing Canada`s controversial “union transparency” legislation, Bill C-377, is now being reviewed by a professional standards organization.

The Vancouver Sun reports that the Canadian Labour Congress has filed a complaint about the poll with the Market Research and Intelligence Association. The complaint, based on research by two University of Regina professors, alleges that the results from one question in the poll are inaccurate because the preamble to the question may have influenced the responses. It also alleges that the results from another question were omitted from the reported outcomes because the results of that question did not support the anti-union attitudes of the poll`s sponsor, the Canadian LabourWatch Association.

I was interviewed by the Canadian Labour Reporter newsletter at the time the poll results were initially released (September 2011). In that interview I expressed concerns about the purpose of the poll, the potential for bias in the design of the survey and its questions, and the selective emphasis in the reporting of the results. For example, the finding that a majority of respondents felt that unions were still relevant was conspicuously absent from Labour Watch`s press release  on the poll results.  I`d like to say that I feel somewhat vindicated that my suspicions about this poll have been confirmed by the information that emerged today – but mostly I feel saddened and horrified that the results of this poll were used to justify a very impractical and unnecessary piece of legislation, and that apparently no one in Parliament involved with the process of approving Bill C-377 thought it worthwhile to look critically and analytically at the poll results.

The preamble to one of the poll`s questions, which is part of the basis of the complaint, is very telling about the attitudes of the group commissioning the poll. According to the Vancouver Sun story, the poll question about whether it “should be mandatory for unions from both the private and public sectors to publicly disclose detailed financial information on a regular basis” was preceded by this introduction:

As you may know, public and private sector unions do not pay taxes, the union dues of unionized employees of the private and public sectors are tax deductible, and their strike pay is not taxable. In addition, taxpayers pay the wages of civil servants and, therefore, fund their union dues.

Not surprisingly, the responses to the question asked immediately after that statement was read were 83% completely or somewhat in agreement with the idea of detailed financial disclosure for unions. And also not surprisingly, this sort of prejudicial preamble is considered highly unacceptable in survey methodology, since respondents` answers are likely to be swayed by the information they hear right before the question is asked. To use another example to demonstrate why this methodology is faulty, framing questions this way is like reading out a series of statistics on prisoners escaping from custody (which is a relatively rare event in Canada) and then asking the survey respondent whether they feel that Canadian jails are sufficiently secure. Because the respondents  have just heard that prisoners escape from jail, they are likely  to agree that jails are not secure enough, even if at any other time they would have no concerns about jail security at all.

 

After being passed by Parliament and being discussed in the Canadian Senate, Bill C-377 has been referred back to Parliament with amendments. Canada`s Senate has been getting a lot of grief lately, some of it well-deserved – but in the case of Bill C-377, thankfully the Senate  fulfilled its legislative role as the House of  “sober second thought”, and recognized the potential problems with, and the essential inequity of, this legislation. It`s shameful that the unreliable results of the LabourWatch poll were apparently accepted as valid reasons for Bill C-377 to be proposed in the first place.

At the very least, the fact that this poll was commissioned by an organization with very obvious public positions on the poll`s subject should have triggered some critical examination of how the poll was structured and conducted. It`s no secret that the federal Conservative Party has a negative opinion of unions, but members of Parliament also have a responsibility to be fair and be thoughtful in carrying out their duties. If the MPs who voted to support Bill C-377 could not be bothered to look carefully at the LabourWatch poll and its results, that is truly scary.

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