Canada 360 | Should we rule by suffrage?

Photo Cole Burston, Reuters archive

The Ontario government headed by Doug Ford conducts opinion polls on a weekly basis.

Emmanuel Riches

Emmanuel Riches
Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Windsor, Ontario

This month’s CBC News Freedom of Information request revealed that Doug Ford’s Ontario government requested that opinion polls be conducted on a weekly basis to find out what the public thinks about various public policy topics and that the results of those polls guided their policy choices. The practice, which costs taxpayers millions of dollars, has become common in many states, as well as in Quebec and at the federal level.

Posted at 2:00 pm.

Of course, ruling by ballot has advantages for both the governed and the rulers.

However, opinion polls should be only one tool among others for government decision-making.

Indeed, citizens deserve public policies based on factual data and not just a thermometer of fame.

Opinion polls are of clear importance in the context of the indirect democracy in which we live. In our political system, it is difficult for elected officials and public servants who support them to gauge the pulse of the population on some issues between two elections. In fact, we do not use public referendums as regularly as in Switzerland for example. By informing politicians of the opinion of citizens, elections perform a democratic function.

Likewise, opinion polls allow governments to legitimize executive decisions that do not have to be discussed and voted on in the legislature. We can think here of the majority of the health measures put in place during the pandemic in Ontario and elsewhere in the country, such as mandatory wearing of masks, vaccination passports and capacity limits in public places.

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By making decisions that more or less correspond to popular interests, the authorities ensure that citizens mostly comply. They can then judge effectively. As the pandemic continues, the Ontario government appears to be trying to strike a delicate balance between its desire to contain the spread of the virus and its interest in keeping people weary of health measures. In such a context, the use of surveys is sure to be beneficial.

Enhanced majority power

From an electoral standpoint, following the polls allows Doug Ford to preserve the interest of voters. By introducing policies that have the support of the population, or at least of its party base and potential new voters, the Progressive Conservative Party certainly increases its chances of re-election. However, such a maneuver does not necessarily serve the greater good.

Although opinion polls often give an idea of ​​the mood of citizens on a particular issue of public policy, they do not allow us to find concrete solutions to solve the problems. Survey results can be misleading when misinterpreted or when the questionnaires used are poorly worded. Slightly changing the questions in the questionnaire or the possible answer options can lead to very different results, and people’s perceptions are constantly changing.

Moreover, judging by opinion polls enhances the power of the majority at the expense of minorities. But democracy is more than majority rule!

By blindly following opinion polls, governments can harm the interests of the most vulnerable people in society and, even worse, violate their rights and freedoms.

The recent easing of health measures in Ontario in particular has angered people who are immunosuppressed and parents of young children who cannot hide themselves or receive vaccinations against COVID-19.

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interactive logic

Moreover, working on the basis of surveys is part of reaction logic rather than preemptive logic. Politicians are waiting for public pressure to mount before taking any action. When you do this, problems escalate and spiral out of control. We can think here of the fifth wave of COVID-19 that would have decreased significantly in Ontario if some health measures had been strengthened earlier, although unpopular.

Since polling data may not be sufficient to make sound policy choices, our leaders must ensure that they have all the necessary data before making decisions. In addition to taking into account the results of opinion polls, they should base their positions on the best judgment, the basic principles of our company, the opinion of experts and the point of view of stakeholders.

Every political decision is by definition controversial. Instead of automatically choosing the political option with the most support, politicians must take responsibility and justify their political choices even if they are less popular than others.

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