The NDP and Greens see the Liberals’ promise to explore electoral reform as their golden ticket…but will it come to fruition?

Published Oct. 23, 2015, on Policy Options

One of the more intriguing Liberal campaign platform promises this campaign was a commitment to electoral reform by 2019.  Since their victory on Monday, there has been a lot of chatter and excitement among certain circles about this particular promise. I see most of it being optimistic.  In NDP and Green circles, it seems to be serving as something of an island in a sea of terrible electoral results. People seem to be hoping that if the Liberals do stick to their promise, it will represent a  quick way to increase their influence by translating their “wasted votes” into seats in a the 43rd Parliament. But I think this optimism is näive.  I don’t think we’re going to change the voting system any time soon.

There are a couple of reasons why commitments to electoral reform made it into the Liberal, Green and NDP platforms in this election.  One, electoral reform is a cheap promise to make and fulfill.  Two, opposition parties usually are the ones who suffer the most under single member plurality systems, governing parties gain the most.  Three, public opinion polls suggested there was a tight three-way race heading into this election, making a minority parliament likely. In such a situation, both the Liberals and the NDP faced the prospect of finishing third and holding a balance of power. Some form of proportionality is precisely the type of promise a third-party might want to extract from the senior party in any type of accord or coalition.  And fourth, electoral reform and proportionality tend to be popular.  Famously, in British Columbia, a referendum on a switch to a proportional electoral system won majority support (57%) in 2005.

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Rural, Suburban and Urban Voters: Dissecting Residence Based Voter Cleavages in Provincial Elections

Authors: Jason Roy, Andrea M.L. Perrella, and Joshua Borden

Published in Vol. 9(1), 2015, issue of Canadian Political Science Review.

Abstract: We explore provincial-level cleavages by drawing on surveys administered during eight elections. More specifically, we examine rural-suburban-urban divisions in regards to party support within Canadian provinces. Our results show a clear division according to place of residence, even after controlling for a host of individual-level characteristics. We argue that recognition of this rural-suburban-urban division is an important and often overlooked aspect of understanding Canadian political preferences and political behaviour more generally.

An Experimental Analysis of the Impact of Campaign Polls on Electoral Information Seeking

Authors: Jason Roy, Shane P. Singh, Patrick Fournier and Blake Andrew

Published in the December, 2015, issue of Electoral Studies.

Abstract: The literature on poll effects has focused upon the impact polls have on election outcomes. To understand how polls affect information seeking more broadly, we examine the influence of campaign-period polls on the decision-making process. Based on an online voting experiment, we find that poll exposure affects information seeking, albeit under limited conditions, and that this effect is mediated according to voters’ sophistication levels. Results also indicate that party-specific deliberation can also be influenced by poll standings; candidates from parties trailing in the polls receive less attention than the leading party, although this is also conditional upon the size of the lead. We then consider how these effects on the information calculus influence voting behavior, finding a bandwagon effect when a clear front-runner is depicted in the polls.

Risk Perception, Psychological Heuristics and the Water Fluoridation Controversy

Authors: Andrea M.L Perrella, Simon Kiss

Published in the 2015 May/June edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health

Abstract:  Objectives: Increasingly, support for water fluoridation has come under attack. We seek an explanation, focusing on the case of Waterloo, Ontario, where a 2010 referendum overturned its water fluoridation program. In particular, we test whether individuals perceive the risks of water fluoridation based not on ‘hard’ scientific evidence but on heuristics and cultural norms.

Methods: A sample of 376 residents in Waterloo were surveyed in June 2012 using random digit dialing. We use factor analysis, OLS regression, as well as t-tests to evaluate a survey experiment to test the credibility hypothesis.

Results: Perceptions of fluoride as a risk are lower among those who perceive fluoride’s benefits (B = .473, p < 0.001) and those whose cultural view is ‘egalitarian’ (B = .156, p < 0.05). The experiment shows a lower level of perception of fluoride’s benefits among respondents who are told that water fluoridation is opposed by a national advocacy group (Group A) compared to those who are told that the government and the World Health Organization support fluoridation (Group B) (t = 1.6547, p < 0.05), as well as compared to the control group (t = 1.8913, p < 0.05). There is no difference between Group B and the control, possibly because people’s already general support for fluoridation is less prone to change when told that other public organizations also support fluoridation.

Conclusion: Public health officials should take into account cultural norms and perceptions when individuals in a community appear to rise up against water fluoridation, with implications for other public health controversies.

Learning from the Kelowna Accord

Published on July 6, 2015, in Policy Options

If you open a newspaper or listen to the radio, it is easy to get discouraged about the relationship between indigenous communities and the government of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average on almost every socio-economic indicator, including housing, education, unemployment, child poverty, and health and well-being. Many blame the federal, provincial and territorial governments for not doing enough to address these issues, and they criticize these governments for failing to establish good working relationships with indigenous communities. These are not new criticisms; almost all federal, provincial and territorial governments in the past have been criticized for their inability to partner with indigenous communities to create mutually beneficial public policies.

What is the solution? This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, a comprehensive, multiyear and multilevel initiative that was designed to forge a new, workable relationship and lasting change for Canada’s indigenous populations. Shortly after its signing, however, the accord was all but abandoned by the incoming Conservative government. Since then, we have seen social and economic conditions in many indigenous communities worsen and the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Crown further deteriorate. Although the Kelowna Accord was abandoned 10 years ago, we argue that the process used by former prime minister Paul Martin to negotiate the accord may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown.

Aboriginal Title One Year after Tsilhqot’in

Published by Christopher Alcantara and Michael Morden in the May 2015 issue of Policy Options.

When the Supreme Court rendered its Tsilhqot’in decision in June 2014, the federal government’s terse response almost seemed delivered through gritted teeth, while many Canadians experienced a familiar sense of uncertainty and quiet apprehension. But most indigenous leaders and commentators reacted with public celebrations and optimism, seeing the decision as a victory for their communities.

Our view, almost a year later, is that all Canadians and indigenous peoples should celebrate the decision.

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Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.


Where did all the baby bottles go? The regulation of bisphenol A in Canada

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

The Imagined Electorate: Values, Perceived Boundaries and the Regional Rehabilitation of Political Culture

Speaker: Ailsa Henderson.

Lecture Dec. 3, 2014 at University of Edinburgh Business School.

Abstract: The Imagined Electorate: Values, Perceived Boundaries and the Regional Rehabilitation of Political Culture
Political culture is often seen as a concept whose time has come and clearly gone, instinctively useful but difficult to treat with precision. Researchers, who have typically employed it as a tool to compare states, have largely been silent on how it might operate at the sub-state level, notwithstanding the considerable research attempting to map regional political cultures within pluri-national or federal states. And yet addressing political culture below the level of the state forces one to explore many of its unanswered questions: How do we know when political cultures exist?; How do we delineate their boundaries?: How important is evidence of distinctiveness? This lecture explores political culture as it operates below the level of the state, identifies the existence of two forms of regional political cultures, identifies markers by which we can identify and delineate political cultures and highlights the importance of perception. It provides data demonstrating that citizens believe they possess distinct values from those in neighbouring regions, even in the absence of meaningful variations in attitudes. The result is an imagined electorate for whom legislators then legislate. Far from proving that regional political cultures do not exist, such imagined perceptions of difference form a central component of the subjective dimensions of politics that political culture as a concept was originally designed to capture. Throughout it argues that by exploring political culture below the level of states we can rehabilitate it as a tool for political scientists.

Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation







Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Explaining the Emergence of Indigenous–Local Intergovernmental Relations in Settler Societies: A Theoretical Framework

Authors: Jen Nelles and Christopher Alcantara.

Published September 2014 in Urban Affairs Review.

Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We address this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.

Identifying Difference, Engaging Dissent: What is at Stake in Democratizing Knowledge?

Authors: Loren King, Brandon Morgan-Olsen and James Wong.

Published September 2014 in Foundations of Science.

Abstract: Several prominent voices have called for a democratization of science through deliberative processes that include a diverse range of perspectives and values. We bring these scholars into conversation with extant research on democratic deliberation in political theory and the social sciences. In doing so, we identify systematic barriers to the effectiveness of inclusive deliberation in both scientific and political settings. We are particularly interested in what we call misidentified dissent, where deliberations are starkly framed at the outset in terms of dissenting positions without properly distinguishing the kinds of difference and disagreement motivating dissent.

Scapegoating: Unemployment, Far-Right Parties and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Authors: Christopher Cochrane and Neil Nevitte

Published: January 2014 in Comparative European Politics.

Abstract: Far-right parties blame immigrants for unemployment. We test the effects of the unemployment rate on public receptivity to this rhetoric. The dependent variable is anti-immigrant sentiment. The key independent variables are the presence of a far-right party and the level of unemployment. Building from influential elite-centered theories of public opinion, the central hypothesis is that a high unemployment rate predisposes citizens to accept the anti-immigrant rhetoric of far-right parties, and a low unemployment rate predisposes citizens to reject this rhetoric. The findings from cross-sectional, cross-time and cross-level analyses are consistent with this hypothesis. It is neither the unemployment rate nor the presence of a far-right party that appears to drive anti-immigrant sentiment; rather, it is the interaction between the two.