Canadian pollsters facing greater scrutiny
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Fri Dec 30 2011. Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau
Canada’s polling industry could be in for a shakeup in 2012, after some major knocks to its reputation in 2011.
From polling methods described as “reprehensible” by the Commons Speaker, to some questionable polling in the federal and provincial elections, Canada’s public-opinion research industry has faced its share of controversy in the past year.
One big test case is looming immediately — an investigation by the Market Research Intelligence Association into the activities of the polling firm Campaign Research, which conducted a survey in the Montreal riding of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler that earned a slap from Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.
If MRIA finds that the firm breached its standards — a charge that Campaign Research vigorously denies — this would be a first for the Canadian polling industry.
The call for stricter measures on how polls are conducted and reported is coming from some leading pollsters, who worry that the credibility of their business is getting dragged down by lax or controversial standards in Canada.
“I’m a little disgusted; no, make that a lot disgusted,” says Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos, who wrote an open letter to Canadian journalists last fall, warning of the growth of sketchy practices in political polling.
“We are distorting our democracy, confusing voters, and destroying what should be a source of truth in election campaigns — the unbiased, truly scientific public opinion poll,” says the letter, which was also signed by John Wright, a senior vice-president of Ipsos.
Bricker, who does extensive polling outside Canada, says France, the United States, Britain and even Nigeria have tighter rules for publicizing poll results, whether it’s limits on when polls can be put in the public domain, or tough scrutiny of the raw data by journalists publishing the material.
“Not in this country, though,” says Bricker, who laments how Canadian media outlets appear now to report on any poll that they’re offered, with few questions asked on who pays for the poll, how it was done and how the numbers have been weighted. Why is it so easy to do polls and even call oneself a pollster in Canada?
“Maybe we’re just more trusting,” Bricker says.
Nik Nanos, who has been doing election polling for major media outlets for the past decade, also wants to see some tougher standards in the business.
Nanos was the second president of the Marketing Research Intelligence Association,founded in 2004 to be a unified voice and standard-setter for the Canadian public-opinion-research industry. But unlike its U.S. counterpart, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the MRIA has yet to censure or discipline any of its members since it was established.
The MRIA does have a code of conduct and does audit polling firms to see whether they meet its “gold-seal” standard, says Nanos. But he’d like to see MRIA being more active in investigating members, and when it finds problems, Nanos believes the association should be publishing details of the polling transgressions, either on the website or through periodic bulletins.
“That would send a strong signal to the industry,” Nanos says.
Executive director Brendan Wycks says MRIA can currently sanction members via one of three ways — censure, suspension from membership for six months to two years, or expulsion from membership.
MRIA is investigating Campaign Research because of several complaints it received. The Conservative party has admitted to commissioning the poll and government spokespersons, such as MP John Williamson, have said it was merely “voter identification.”
The principal of the polling firm, Nick Kouvalis, has not responded to repeated requests from the Star for an interview about the Cotler controversy. But Kouvalis did do an interview with CTV’s National Affairs show, in which he claimed no wrongdoing and boasted of the gold-seal status his firm has won from the MRIA.
“My job is to end Liberal politicians’ careers. That’s what I get paid to do. It’s not pretty, it offends some people, but that’s what I get paid to do,” Kouvalis told interviewer Scott Reid. “We’re a service provider and we’re good at what we do and we follow the rules.”
In a newly released book on the 2011 federal election, Carleton University professor André Turcotte devotes a whole chapter to the troubled state of polling in Canada and particular attention to problems of discrepancies in results and predictions.
Turcotte notes that there have been calls for more transparency and rigour in standards for polling since the 1960s in Canada and notes, as the pollsters do, that the media are part of the problem and solution, too.
By treating all polls equally and failing to disclose basic information about the motives, methodology and money behind the results being published, the media — and by extension, the voting public — becomes vulnerable to sketchy practices, Bricker says.
In Turcotte’s chapter on polling, he says, “it is unlikely that changes will occur in the near future, unless the polling industry demands them.”
That time may have come, with pollsters such as Bricker and Nanos calling for a crackdown.
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