The impression one gets from a casual following of economic news is that Canada is doing well but not outstanding. There are concerns about Europe and the U.S. but these seem divorced from the day-to-day lives of most Canadians. Nevertheless, consumer confidence has dropped quite precipitously over the past three months. According to TNS Canada, […]
April 15, 2013
I spend a lot of time on the Internet, as you probably do as well. It is there in the background when I am working, it is in my pocket when I am walking, it is playing music in the kitchen as I prepare dinner, and it is sending me alarms and notices. When I […]
March 12, 2013
Public opinion change is not unheard of but when it comes to fundamental beliefs and values, we expect change to take place slowly, if at all. The evolution of Canadian beliefs about same-sex marriage provide an interesting example of dramatic changes that both presupposed and reacted to court decisions.
Courts played a key role in Canada but public opinion was not an idle bystander.
This is telling as Americans look to an upcoming Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage that will no doubt shape the political discourse there.
Court decisions were certainly critical points in the evolution of public opinion on the issue. For timelines of the issue see the CBC website. Notably, courts ruled in the early 90s that discrimination based on sexual orientation was protected, that same-sex couples have the same benefits and obligations as opposite-sex common law couples (Supreme Court, 1999), and in 2002 the Ontario Superior Court rules that prohibiting same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Ruling on same-sex marriage in other provinces followed until eventually the Parliament of Canada passed a law defining marriage to include same-sex relationships in 2005.
Throughout the period of the 1990s Court decisions were in line with and reflected a growing tolerance toward homosexuality. Thankfully, the Canadian Election Study (CES) and Environics both tracked the evolution. Starting in 1987 Environics asked as part of its Focus Canada study, Canadian attitudes toward homosexuality. In 1987, 10% indicated that they approved of homosexuality (there were many unsures (30%) this year and in 1996). By 2004, this number reached 47%. Even setting aside the very low year of 1987, the increase from to 47% is remarkable. In a different approach, the Canadian Election Study asked respondents to rate homosexuals (Gays and Lesbians after 1993) on a scale from 0 to 100. The average rating for each survey rose from 45.5 to 73 out of 100 in 2011.The outsider nature of the community has broken down substantially in the last decade, particularly after 2004 (between 2004 and 2011 the average rating has increased much more than it did between 1993 and 2004).
Although history seems like inevitable march toward granting and accepting same-sex marriage, in 1999 a federal vote maintained the traditional definition of opposite sex relationships. While courts and Parliament were extending the same rights, the actual inclusion into the institution of marriage was being denied. Public opinion was divided and offered little in specific guidance.
The chart below shows polling on the question over time from four polling firms. There were many other polls but often the questions were only asked once and this provides a very interesting as it is.
The CES surveys, which cover the longest period, show agreement that Gays and Lesbians should be allowed to marry rises significantly between the 1997 and 2000 elections. Note that in this period, the Supreme Court had ruled that same-sex couples have the same benefits and obligations as opposite-sex ones. The question of marriage was definitely on the agenda. Nevertheless, just 50% supported marriage at this time.
As the issue heated up, more polling was taking place and polls showed relatively little movement in attitudes. Most trend lines were not moving dramatically in either direction but overall most were showing support for same-sex marriage hovering around 50% depending on whether respondents were explicitly given an unsure or neither category (this is why the Ekos trend line is lower). All trend lines tend to be more positive once Parliament acted in a manner consistent with the court rulings.
One reading of the trend is that public opinion was divided but leaning toward accepting same-sex marriage but this misses a key element of public opinion at the time — the overall acceptance of same-sex relationships.
The questions in the figure above show the issue in terms of a binary choice — same-sex marriage or not. The reality is that There were fewer staunch opponents than it may seem. A TNS survey in 2004 found that 39% would support marriage and another 35% would support legal unions for same-sex couples.
Moving forward to recognize same-sex relationships in formal-legal way (possibly including marriage) was something that Canadians were overwhelmingly onside with. Courts said it had to be civil marriage and a healthy majority of Canadians now agree.
Canadian courts played a nontrivial role in bringing about same-sex marriage but they did so largely with public support. If courts were leading they found increasingly receptive audiences for their messages.
We are fortunate that the Canadian Opinion Research Archive is around to help preserve the cultural legacy of the public opinion research that has taken place in the past 3 plus decades. I draw on some of the data here along with searches of individual company websites.
March 20, 2012
Question scales come in two types: seesaws and stairs. The main point of differentiation of the two ideal-types is the presence or absence of a tipping point. See saws have them and stairs do not.
When you are thinking about a scale, you need to ask yourself is there a point on the scale that the scale tips to the other side because this will help ensure you have the right points on the scale.
Some questions naturally have a tipping point
Consider an agree-disagree scale. Regardless of the number of points on the scale, at some point the respondent must be on one side or the other (or precariously balancing in the middle). As you move from strongly agree to strongly disagree, at some point you move from on-balance agreeing to on-balance disagreeing. A yes-no question also has a natural tipping point. Thus a seesaw
But not all question scales have tipping points because they are asking, how much of something do you have? Just like there is no tipping point (a single place in the scale where it breaks into two halves) for income, there isn’t one for many questions that capture the amount of something like concern, interest, or priority.
How concerned are you about the safety of the food you buy?
The question above would be best captured with a scale that went from “Not at all concerned” to “Very or extremely concerned”. As you can see, there is no place where you specifically tip from one side to the other. The scales act more like stairs or a ladder with artificial stepping points on an underlying dimension.
Of course, you can turn this into a seesaw scale by polarizing the poles of the scale (e.g. very unconcerned to very concerned).
Why is matters
To some extent using a seesaw versus a stair scale is a matter of preference but there is one place where it matters. When you have a stair type scale that moves up from nothing to a lot of some thing (e.g. importance, concern), then there is little place for a neither category in the middle.
Neither categories fit nicely into the middle of seesaw questions because a respondent can refuse to take sides — balancing in the middle. They do not work the same way for a stair-type scale. Respondents who are unable or unwilling to answer a question must choose a category outside of the scale for these questions such as “Don’t know”, “Not applicable”, or “No opinion”. These non-answers can’t be in the middle now but rather must be outside of the main scale.
So do you prefer scales that force a tipping point or those that allow people to place themselves on a continuum from nothing to a lot of something?
April 19, 2013
Over the past quarter century, North American society has undergone a profound education creep. This is evident in the fact that more and more students are entering university, but also in my impression of the seemingly endless number of new degree programs and industry certifications that have emerged.
While the world is no doubt a more sophisticated place than it was 20 years ago, particularly in the sciences, a good part of the expansion of credentials seems more about furthering an insider versus outsider mentality designed to insulate insiders from competition than it is about real credentials.
The past is ripe with examples of organizations that have used licenses to restrict access to professions from guilds to modern-day unions. Credentials and by extension licenses are equivalent barriers. At some level, all of these function to limit or constrain who can (or should) carry out a particular service.
Now I am not opposed to all credentials. Admittedly, I would prefer to be seen by a physician that has a license over one that does not. But the credential itself offers little more than a minimal standard. Every credential, whether it is held by a doctor, a CMA, or a market researcher, is only a statement that the person met a standard. By definition, some of those holding the certification are much better than others. Interestingly, we don’t ask for transcripts to prove our doctor of choice was top of their class, which would be an effective measure of how much confidence the granting organization has in their abilities. Instead, we either trust that the person knows what they are doing or we look for other validation of their ability (where they work, recommendations from friends or colleagues).
When we move from life-and-death to the more mundane matters of business and service choice, the credential seems to offer even less. For most of us, I expect we tend to assume that a person has the required certifications and make our choice based on other factors. The minimum standard is probably not what we really care about when choosing someone to cut our hair, do our taxes, or give us financial advice. We want more, even if judging that more is not easy (and sometimes requires experimentation).
If we always want more, then credentials are really just an entry ticket. They simply get one past credential-based filters in hiring and other selection processes. We win or lose on other factors. Which raises the question, do we need all of these credentials? Would the things that we really care about (e.g. previous experience, recommendations) not suffice to exclude those who would not meet the minimum credential anyway?
As journalists have found out, there are forces in North American society that are breaking down the barriers between those with and without credentials. Anyone can now be a journalists and their content speaks for itself (for better or worse). It is not clear that other jobs face the same pressure but more credentials is unlikely to be the answer.
So the next time you see a bunch of letters after someone’s name, ask yourself what they really mean. To me, they are at best a sign of personal commitment and interest not a basis for distinguishing between two people.
Richard Jenkins, Ph.D.
February 15, 2013
Senators have been having a tough time the last few weeks and the institution is looking a lot less like an institution of sober second thought and more like a frat house. But, even if Harper is now regretting his choices and even though he may want senate reform, the recent events do nothing to help motivate change.
Changing the Senate is fraught with risk as any potential change threatens the balance of political power in this country.
The arguments for reform certainly have some merit on their face. Consider the following reasons: (1) it is a waste of money given the work that is done by Senators; (2) Senators are not accountable to anyone, even the person who appointed them; (3) the institution does not fulfill its mandate to represent the provinces; and, (4) the Senate does not sufficiently exercise independent oversight of House activity. This laundry list is of my own, but it captures much of the debate.
Faced with arguments such as this and the probable situation that Canadians do not fully see the benefits to a Senate, we would not expect much support within the public for the status quo.
A simple question about its future, in this case abolition or not, does elicit a preference for change. Almost half of Canadians (49%) agree that the Senate should be abolished against only 33% who disagree. Taken from the 2011 Canadian Election Study, this provides directional support for change but it is not overwhelming support. And, of course, abolition is the easiest choice because it does not open up the debate about how to reform or change the institution.
Of course, debate over the future of the Senate is not just being framed in terms of the current Senate or no Senate. Reform is another option and when Environics included this option in polling over the past twenty years it found a plurality is in favour or reform rather than abolition. In fact, 27% would prefer to leave it as it is in the last wave of the study. Interestingly, there has been virtually no movement in public opinion since 1992.
The issue becomes even more complicated when we start probing the nature of the reform that Canadians would support. Our strong commitment to democracy means that 86% would prefer that a reformed Senate be elected directly by the people (Environics, Focus Canada, 2007). No doubt it is this underlying democratic commitment that is generating some of the current appetite for reform. We did not choose these people and they are not representing us.
There is, however, no consensus on the composition of the Senate and this is, perhaps the most difficult reform to address. Originally, the Senate was meant to be a place of regional representation (thus representation by population was eschewed for provincial/ regional representation). In the same Environics surveys, when asked to choose between having the an equal number of senators from each province or having the number for each province based on the size of the population, Canadians are slightly more likely to prefer population based allocation, but 41% would prefer equal number per province.
Reform, other than the easy step of letting the people decide, is then fraught with political division within the public.
The challenge in reforming the Senate, is that public opinion offers, at this time, so little in terms of helping to navigate the critical details about how an elected Senate would function and be composed. These details are likely to involve an elite-led process unless the Supreme Court rules that some aspects (e.g. the change from appointed to elected) of Senate Reform is wholly within the Federal jurisdiction. Baring this, the requirement for sufficient elite consensus across the country seems lacking.
The public can get annoyed with the current system and tell pollsters they prefer an elected process for the Senate but they are only one player and their annoyance is unlikely to turn into sufficient priority (as compared with more pressing needs such as the economy or health care) to motivate the political class.
More importantly, as yet, the public is insufficiently engaged to truly tell us how they envision the future of the institution. Such as vision, must reflect a true understanding of the consequences for how democracy and government will work in Canada. Such a vision is the only real way Canadians could drive the process for reform.
Public opinion will no doubt matter in the playing out of the politics of institutional reform but one expects it is more likely to act to quash options (and maybe even compromise) rather than directing how political leaders try to sort reform out.
For those interested in reform, some form of deeper citizen involvement and engagement will be necessary. A citizen assembly seems most promising but even here the issues of substantive Senate reform — beyond abolishment — raise potentially intractable issues of political power.
What do you think? Do you want or hope for Senate reform?