Voting Advice Applications: Do they help with voter turnout?

Remember CBC Vote Compass? CBC said 2 million Canadians used it during the May 2 election. The basic idea behind the tool is that a voter answers a series of questions and then the software returns a result telling the voter who he or she is politcally aligned line with, based on the answers to the questions.

The Vote Compass tool is part of a class of software tools called voting advice applications (VAAs).

The CBC's VAA became controversial because, as the folks at pointed out, it appeared to be “miscalibrated”. We reported that it seemed to have a default tendency to inform the user that s/he was a federal Liberal.

In any event: VAAs are often seen as a neat way to get young people or those who have never voted before interested enough in politics that they might actually want to cast a ballot.

Some European researchers took a look at this premise by examining use of a VAA used in Switzerland called smartvote and, in a paper published last year (but which i just ran across today), found that while it did indeed break through to young people, it was predominantly used by those who needed such a tool the least, namely better-educated, higher-income men.

We do not yet have a breakdown of voter turnout on May 2 by age group (turnout was higher, overall, than the 2008 election but just barely and 2008 was an all-time low for voter turnout) and, of course, the data collected by CBC through its Vote Compass is CBC's. Would love, though, to see a story from CBC, though, that summarizes the data from its 2 million users with some possible lessons learned. (In fact: Maybe someone did that story and I missed. Would be grateful for the link if you've got it.)

Newspaper readership, young people, and political engagement

Though Henry Milner's book The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts is written for an academic audience, I think anyone interested in how politics is done in the digital age would find it stimulating. I'm only about a third of the way through and, so far, if I had to sum up what I think he's driving at it would be this: The Internet, social networks and other new telecom and digital tools are not, by themselves, helping to make young people politically active. For those who choose to be politically active, they are great. But the wide use of Internet-based communication tools, particularly among young people, does not appear to have produced any uptick in political participation. (And Milner spends quite a bit of time reviewing the research about what is meant by the term “political participation”).

Here's Milner:



In one section, Milner looks at “political knowlege” (a precursor to political participation) and media use over time, from the generation where news primarily was distributed through newspapers, to the radio era, to the rise of television and then to the Internet.

“The weight of evidence,” Milner writes, “is that the change from newspapers to television — especially commercial television — lowered overall levels of political knowledge … Television's critics persuasively argue that the generations rasied on commercial television have a reduced capacity to make distinctions — between information and entertainment, between news and gossip, between fact and wishful thinking.”

Milner also cites studies that show political engagement among young people is significantly higher in European (particularly northern European) countries than in Canada or the U.S.

Now taking those facts into account, here's a chart Milner provides that shows “self-reported daily newspaper readership” by young people in European countries, the U.S. and Canada at 2004. Note who's at the top and who's near the bottom.


How can journalists know the truth? A Twitter dialogue

Earlier today, Green Party leader Elizabeth May had these two tweets:

Elizabeth May Tweet


Elizabeth May Tweet

That set off a whole storm of criticism at the Green Party leader who was accused of, among other things, being a Luddite. As May would tweet later in the day, “shocked by some Twitter reaction” and “Twitter sure works to spark debate“. Indeed it does, Ms. May, indeed it does

[Update: May would provide a substantial blog post at the end of the day on this topic. See “The Twitter fire storm and why I said what I said about Wi-Fi“). The National Post's editorialists had at her anyway

My little corner of this debate eventually hinged (as I saw it, anyhow): How do journalists go about finding the 'truth' of the matter? Though I've been a journalist for more than 25 years, I do not claim to know the answer to this question. In fact, if you're in my profession, I think it a good thing to recognize that you do not know the answers to a lot of questions! Still: At some point, you are faced with a constructing some version of reality for your readers and viewers and, in many cases, it will be impossible to construct that story without the assumptions of some truths behind it.

Here's National Post writer Jonathan Kay talking about this in his book Among the Truthers (the book is a look at 9/11 Truthers and other conspiracy theories):

The fact is that there is a grain of truth to the claim that media creates its own “invented reality”… just not in the way that conspiracy theorists believe … rather, the reality we journalists “invent” is very much based on the mundane happenings in the world around us, but it is selected, packaged, and sold according to our own editorial and ideological biases, as well as our commercial understanding of what interests our readers, listeners, and viewers. As a result, the news that appears in the media often is dumbed down, sensationalized, slanted left or right in a way that can make people think we are making it up all out of whole cloth.

… In describing the day's news, for instance, FOX and NPR provide such different points of view that they might as well be broadcasting from different planets. In the current political environment, the usual practice among ordinary media consumers is they “trust” one side and accuse the other of dishonesty .. (p. 94-95)

Kay's book is largely a debunking of the “Truther” movement but what about a journalist on deadline, without the ability to interview scores of sources and read dozens of reports? How are we to know which scientist has it right and which doesn't?

Put yourself, for a minute,  in the shoes of a journalist who has no science background and ask yourself what you make of these three statements

1. Scientists say smoking causes cancer.

2. Scientists say climate change is happening right now; that mankind can do something to slow climate change; and that if we do not do something, bad things will happen.

3. Scientists say long-term exposure to low-power wifi radiation could be harmful to your health.

Now, sixty years ago just like today, a journalist confronted with claim number one would seek out an expert — like a doctor — to set them down the path to knowledge.  Sixty years ago, if you asked a doctor about smoking, you might get something like this:

At some point, of course, the experts figured out that smoking kills and journalists are hard-pressed today to find an expert that will sing the virtues of smoking.

But what about statement two?

Any journalist (like me)  who's ever written about climate change can expect a deluge of e-mail challenging our reporting if their reporting assumes the truth of statement number two. Indeed, we'll get many correspondents who believe that there is a mass media conspiracy to suppress important information that suggests climate change science is a great fraud. For better or worse, I am not one of those journalists. I believe in the truth of statement two (though you will find some journalists ready to challenge that truth) though that leaves lots of room for discussion about the policy implications that stem from accepting statement two. And I should point out that statement two is accepted by all federal political parties, from Conservatives to Greens. There is no one in Parliament to champion a dissenting view of the basics around this fact.

But one of the reasons I have come to believe in statement two is that I have talked to enough scientists but I also rely heavily on “official” pronouncements from the Government of Canada and the like that this the accepted view of most scientists.

Now what about statement three? Personally, I want statement three to be false because I love wi-fi and find it useful. Not only that, I have a wi-fi network at work and at home.  Professionally, though, I ought to challenge my own views on this and approach this issue with a commitment to fairly and accurately reporting the science on this issue. Right?

The issue, so far as I can tell, has not been as exhaustively studied as smoking or climate change. So far, though, there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence of any harm. Indeed, most of the studies I've seen say: There is no harm. And yet, here's a professor at a recognized Canadian university who believes that there is the potential for harm and that we have not studied the issue enough. Meanwhile, the the folks at Princeton University saying, relax, wifi is safe.

So if it was just Trent versus Princeton here, who would you go with? Journalists, I submit, are as influenced by brand and reputation as anyone else. And, though I'm very fond of Trent and mean no disrespect, Princeton wins here on rep.

But — if you know Trent, Trent folks would see this as precisely the reason to be supporting Trent. Princeton stands for big science and big money — and don't you think telecoms pay for all that research? Trent is the indie guy with no axe to grind except looking out for your health!

I'm generalizing here a bit but I hope you get my point: No matter what the subject, journalists have to, as a practical matter, give more weight to one source than another. And if more sources are on one side than the other, we tend to go with that.

But those choices, inevitably, lead to charges of bias and calls for objectivity. This, at the end of it all, was what my Twitter conversation came to be about. I was asked: Why can't you just report the facts? Ok, then. Which ones? All of them? Cuz the minute you choose to omit one fact and keep another in, you have made a value decision and value decisions are not, by definition, objective decisions. Which story would you put on the front page? The one about the death of the gun registry or the death of the long-form census? Both are certainly important, one could argue, but one will sell more papers than the other. Is a news organization biased if it chooses one over the other?

Again: I do not have all the answers to these question but I am convinced of a few things, namely:

1. I will wake up tomorrow ready to prove myself wrong of what I thought to be true today. That's my job.

2. My readers and viewers are smarter than I am.

3. I'm a good enough journalist to be fair and to be accurate but I'm going to need a lot of help, advice, and luck to be “truthful and objective.”

And on that note, I leave you with this, which is funny because it's largely true and explains much about the news business:


Good luck Jack Layton and see you in September

My family's thoughts and prayers are with Jack Layton, Olivia Chow and their family today and if Jack says he'll be back in September, I believe him. Good luck, best wishes, and see you in September:

Statement from Jack Layton:

On February 5th, 2010 I shared with Canadians that I, like 25,000 other Canadian men every year, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

I have received overwhelming support from my loving family, my friends, my caucus and party, and thousands of everyday Canadians.

Their stories and support have touched me. And I have drawn strength and inspiration from them.

In the closing days of the most recent session of the House of Commons, I suffered from some stiffness and pain.

After the House rose, I undertook a series of tests at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

My battle against prostate cancer is going very well. My PSA levels remain virtually undetectable.

However, these tests, whose results I received last week, also indicate that I have a new, non-prostate cancer that will require further treatment.

So, on the advice of my doctors, I am going to focus on treatment and recovery.

I will therefore be taking a temporary leave of absence as Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. I'm going to fight this cancer now, so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes.

To that end, I have requested that the President of our party, Brian Topp, consult our Parliamentary caucus and then convene a meeting of our party's federal council to appoint an interim leader.

The interim leader will serve until I resume my duties.

I intend to do so when Parliament meets on September 19th.

I am also making a recommendation on who the interim leader should be.

I suggest that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel be named interim leader during this period.

Ms. Turmel enjoys unanimous support as the national chair of our Parliamentary caucus. She is an experienced national leader in both official languages. And she will do an excellent job as our national interim leader.

Let me conclude by saying this.

If I have tried to bring anything to federal politics, it is the idea that hope and optimism should be at their heart.

We CAN look after each other better than we do today. We CAN have a fiscally responsible government. We CAN have a strong economy; greater equality; a clean environment.

We CAN be a force for peace in the world.

I am as hopeful and optimistic about all of this as I was the day I began my political work, many years ago.

I am hopeful and optimistic about the personal battle that lies before me in the weeks to come.

And I am very hopeful and optimistic that our party will continue to move forward.

We WILL replace the Conservative government, a few short years from now.

And we WILL work with Canadians to build the country of our hopes

Of our dreams

Of our optimism

Of our determination

Of our values…

Of our love.

Thank you.

Statement from Nycole Turmel:

I think Jack’s statement speaks for itself today.

My colleagues and I are all just wishing our leader a speedy recovery.

As for the next steps, Caucus will meet on Wednesday and Federal Council Thursday to choose an interim leader. I am honoured by his recommendation, but have no further comment to make today.

Thank you.

Talk tough or be nice: Canada's China numbers grow no matter what

When the Conservatives formed a government under Stephen Harper early in 2006, the government's stance towards China was cool, to say the least. Concerned about China's poor record on human rights and democratic reform, the Harper government seemed to go out of its way to thumb its nose at China.  In October, 2007, for example, Harper posed in his office with the Dalai Lama (left, pic taken by PMO), which the government of China called “disgusting conduct.” Harper was one of the few world leaders who did not bother going to Beijing for the opening of the 2008 Olympic Winter Games, even though Canada would follow China as host of those games in Vancouver in 2010.

Then, in 2009, Harper went to China. He was dressed down publicly by China's number two politician, Premier Wen Jiabiao (a rebuke I took offence to as a Canadian). The following year, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa ahead of the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. Now, John Baird, in his first major trip as foreign affairs minister, is in China.

Some believed that the Conservatives shed their previously hawkish stance on China to better help Canadian firms win new business in China. Really? Let's take a look at the trade data:

Canadian exports to China grew by 8.2%, 21.9% and 10.1% in the first three years of the Harper government, when it was “talking tough” to China. Canadian exports grew 6.5% and 18.7%  in 2009 and 2010 respectively, when the Harper government decided to take a different stance. (Data source: Industry Canada) Now: Could exports between 2005 and 2008 have grown faster if the Harper government had “talked nice” during that period? Maybe. But export growth of 21.9% in the same year that Harper was committing his “disgusting conduct” of meeting with the Dalai Lama seems pretty good to me.

Moreover, Canada's exports to China grew relative to our overall exports. In 2005, our sales to China made up 1.65% of our overall exports. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 — the years when Harper “cooled” relations — Chinese exports accounted for 1.77%, 2.11%, and 2.17% of Canada's overall exports. Decent growth in every year. In 2010, exports to China now account for 3.31 per cent of overall exports, up from just 1.06 per cent a decade ago in 2001.

If I had to take any lesson from these numbers it might be this: Our exports are growing because we have stuff the Chinese want to buy. It doesn't much matter how our government behaves — they're still buying. And if that's the case, why not do more to stand up for human rights and democracy. We'll still get rich selling to the Chinese!



Ontario Tory ridings clean up on federal arts grants

In May's general election, the Conservatives, nearly ran the table in the south and southwestern Ontario. Liberals were left with just Frank Valeriote in Guelph; the NDP have pockets of support in Windsor and Hamilton and one seat in each of Welland and London.

So it's no surprise, I suppose, that when Heritage Minister James Moore announced earlier this week funding from his department for 51 arts and culture projects in that part of the province, ridings held by Tory MPs cleaned up. (See Press Release: Harper Government Invests in Arts, Culture and Official Languages in Southwestern Ontario )

Here's the breakdown:

  • The press release says Moore announced $1.93 million for “more than 50 projects” but I count $1.78 million for 51 projects in the backgrounder issued with the news release.
  • The feds are funding 36 projects in ridings held by Conservative MPs. The combined value of those projets if $1.17 million.
  • The feds are funding 8 projects in ridings held by NDP MPs. Combined value $206,300.
  • The feds are funding 1 project in the Liberal-held riding in Guelph. It's worth $159,000.
  • For six projects, we were unable to determine which riding the money would largely be spent in. Those six totalled $249,000.
  • Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who represents the riding of Niagara Falls, is the big winner on the money side, scoring $316,648 in grants for two projects.
  • Stephen Woodworth, who represents Kitchener Centre will get the most photo ops. Five projects in his riding worth $282,108 got funding.
  • Other big winners: Larry Miller (Owen Sound) with 5 projects worth $48,300; Peter Braid (Kitchener-Waterloo) with 4 projects/$80,900; Rick Dykstra (St. Catharines) with 3 projects for $133,212 and NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre) with 3/$38,000

These funds came out of the following Heritage Canada programs: Canada Cultural Investment Fund (Strategic Initiatives Component), Canada Cultural Investment Fund (Endowment Incentives Component), the Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage Program, the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, and the Cooperation with the Community Sector component of the Development of Official-Language Communities Program. Given the amount of time it takes for most funding applications to these programs to be processed, it's likely safe to assume that most applications had been with departmental bureaucrats since before the May 2 election.

Cameron to force ministers to register media mogul contacts

In Canada, the first thing the Conservatives did upon getting elected was to set up the lobbyist registry. The thinking here is that a little sunlight on the on lobbyists — who they are, who they work for, who they used to work for — and their relationship with politicians will go a long way to making sure that the public interest is never betrayed by either a lobbyist or a politician wants to engage in some mutual back-scratching. The Conservatives eventually required lobbyists to file “monthly communication reports”, which lists any meeting a registered lobbyist or a registered organization has with a minister, his or her senior political staff or other so-called designated public office holders.

So, for example, we are able to know that, on June 29, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz met with a representative of the registered lobbyist organization the Grain Growers of Canada. (Ritz and the GGC would both like to dismantle the monopsony of the Canadian Wheat Board). Reporters check these databases from time to time and notice trends or certain meetings which might spur further questions. Sunlight. A wonderful thing.

In the United Kingdom today, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new type of registry today, a response to the growing phone hacking scandal that is not only threatening News Corp. but also Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government. Here's what he said:

I will be consulting the Cabinet Secretary on an amendment to the Ministerial Code to require Ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives – regardless of the nature of the meeting.

Permanent Secretaries and Special Advisers will also be required to record such meetings.

And this information should be published quarterly.

It is a first for our country, and alongside the other steps we are taking, will help make the UK government one of the most transparent in the world.

Cameron is doing this, presumably, because one of the issues that has emerged out of the phone hacking scandal is that politicians and the British press have had, in many instances, too cozy a relationship. Cameron believes a little sunlight on that relationship will be a good thing. (Question for my UK readers: Does the UK government required lobbyists to be registered and report monthly communications?)

In Canada, I should note, media organizations can be greated like ordinary, everyday lobbyists and must disclose their meetings if a media owner or proprietor wishes to meet with a minister for some reason other than the regular newsgathering/journalism process. Quebecor, the parent of Sun Media, is registered to lobby and you can review  Quebecor's disclosure of meetings with “designated public office holders” to see what our executives have been up to.



Regional developments ministers busy with cash in their own ridings

As we being to track government spending announcements since the election of the 41st Parliament, I thought it might be worthwhile to review my #ottawaspends database for some data on spending announcements during the 40th Parliament, with a particular focus on the spending habits of the country’s regional development ministers.

There are six regional development departments or agencies, one each for Atlantic Canada, Quebec, southern Ontario, northern Ontario, Canada’s north and the four western provinces.

Here’s some summary data from the 40th Parliament:

  • While Denis Lebel was minister for Canada Economic Development for Quebec Region, we tracked 39 announcements which put $24.5 million into his riding of Roberval-Lac St. Jean. Lebel is still the minister for CED.
  • While Keith Ashfield was minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, we tracked 28 announcements which put $20 million into his riding of Fredericton (NB). In the 41st Parliament, ACOA is now the responsibility of New Brunswicker Bernard Valcourt.
  • The minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency during the last Parliament was Chuck Strahl and then John Duncan, both of whom represented B.C. ridings, neither of which are in CANNOR’s catchment area of the three northern Canada ridings. Nunavut MP (and health minister) Leona Aglukkaq is now responsible for CANNOR.
  • While Lynne Yelich was the minister for Western Economic Diversification, we tracked 10 announcements which put $16.8 million into her riding of Blackstrap (SK). Yelich is still the minister for WD.
  • While Gary Goodyear was minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, we tracked 3 announcements which put $3.8 million into his riding of Cambridge (ON). Goodyear is still still the FEDDEV minister.
  • While Tony Clement was minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Initiatives for Northern Ontario, we tracked 3 announcements from that department which put $1.1 million into his riding of Muskoka-Parry Sound (ON). Clement continues to be the FEDNOR minister.

Again: These amounts are funds that only came from the minister’s department. The famous $50 million G8 money that went to Clement’s riding, for example, came from another department for which Clement was not the minister.

Billionaire George Soros explains his philanthropy but leaves me with some questions

I rather admire George Soros for the fact that, like a handful of billionaires, he's putting lots of his money where his mouth is when it comes to trying to make the world a healthier, safer, more democratic place. (Bill Gates is a more well-known example of that; Canada's Jeff Skoll a slightly less well-known example.)

In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books (sorry: it's behind the NYRB' paywall), Soros talks about his philanthropy and engages in an interesting discussion of how his foundations/endowments will continue to work on his philanthropic causes after he's gone.

But up near the top of his essay, there's a couple of paragraphs that gave me pause:

I occupy an exceptional position. My success in the financial markets has given me a greater degree of independence than most other people. This obliges me to take stands on controversial issues when others cannot, and taking such positions has itself been a source of satisfaction. In short, my philanthropy has made me happy. What more could one ask for? I do not feel, however, that I have any business imposing my choices on others.

I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist. If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests. I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle. And if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public-spirited figures could make a big difference.

I, for one, would very much like an example where Soros' public and philanthropic interests where in conflict with his business interests. He does not give one on this essay though he may have elsewhere. What did he do in that situation? Did he divest of of the 'unethical' business interest or did he double down on the investment and make a killing? And, perhaps I'm naive, but why shouldn't business leaders and investors who are so inclined be able to invest and carry on business that is in line with their ethics and whatever it is they perceive to be the public interest? Just askin' …


A "Truthers" debunker resource kit

I most recently ran into some 9/11 truthers — three of them actually — at the NDP convention last month in Vancouver. I was among several hundred convention delegates outside the Vancouver Convention Centre on a beautiful summer's evening enjoying a cocktail and some nibbles at the end of a day filled with policy debates when one of them spotted my “Media” badge and we started chatting about the day's events. I can't recall how the conversation turned but turn it did and these three young men patiently explained to me why the attacks of 9/11 were an inside job and why I was complicit in the media conspiracy to avoid uncovering the truth.

I had certainly not done the homework that my conversants had done and found it difficult to hold up my end of the conversation. This morning, though, I ran across some excellent resources as I began reading Jon Kay's so-far fascinating new book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground which should help me the next time I'm called upon to participate in a discussion about who was behind the 9/11 attacks and why.