My old criminal law professor Barney Sneiderman took a great interest in the Robert Latimer case. One of his more memorable lectures in law school involved him telling a story about writing some justice of the Supreme Court of Canada after they upheld Latimer’s murder conviction. Barney had an interest in end-of-life issues and was convinced that the Court had fudged the facts about the condition that Latimer’s daughter lived in, which then made it easier for the Court to conclude that the defence of necessity didn’t apply to Latimer’s situation. He had a funny story about raising this with one of the judges on the court; the judge was not impressed.
Judges aren’t the only ones who might sometimes fudge facts (assuming, of course, that Barney was right; at the very least, it was a fine story, told well). David Staples’ opus magnum the other day summarizing, for the benefit of Ed Stelmach, why he should fund this project, is another excellent example. I’m going to leave his second point for the time being and go straight to his third point.
3. The proposed downtown project enjoys popular support
David explains his rationale here:
It’s no reach to suggest most Edmontonians — other than a vocal minority such as the few handfuls that showed up at the recent anti-arena protest at city hall — want Stelmach to support this project. The vast majority of almost 30,000 responses to the city’s online questionnaire last fall supported the project. This finding was validated by a scientific phone survey of 800 Edmontonians, where people again made it clear they want a better downtown, they believe a downtown arena will help, and they are willing to accept reasonable public financing. Edmonton’s city council is now firmly on board for hammering out a deal here.
Now, I’m not a journalist, paid to cover this issue and familiar with the nuances of every point, so I had to get up to speed on the polling. In the course of doing so, I Googled something like “Edmonton arena polls.” Oddly, it turns out that there have been a bunch of them done.
2007 poll commissioned by the, uh, Edmonton Journal: “Around two-thirds of the respondents think that the Oilers should continue to play at Rexall Place as it is today and around the same percentage are against putting any taxpayers’ money into a new arena.”
August 2009 Ipsos Reid poll: 76% of Edmontonians disagree (46% strongly/31% somewhat) with the statement “The City should provide taxpayer’s money for a new Hockey Arena.”
September 2010 Ipsos Reid Global TV poll: 74 per cent of Edmontonians do not agree that the city should use taxpayers’ money for the construction of a new hockey facility downtown
October 2010 Ipsos Reid poll: 72% of Edmontonians oppose the City of Edmonton providing taxpayer’s money for a new downtown arena.
December 2010 Return on Insight poll: 67% of people think that the City of Edmonton should contribute funds to a new downtown arena as long as it does not raise the property tax rate or reallocate infrastructure funds.
I don’t know how you can say what David’s saying: “…most Edmontonians — other than a vocal minority such as the few handfuls that showed up at the recent anti-arena protest at city hall — want Stelmach to support this project.” It’s a shocking thing for a journalist with any respect for the truth to write, without, at the very least, acknowledging all of the polls that seem to disagree with the one poll he’s citing and attempting to reconcile the distinction. His castle of public support has, at the very least, a questionable foundation.
It’s interesting to me how tightly grouped the opposition to the arena is when it’s phrased in terms of putting taxpayer money into the arena. Every poll that phrased the question that way (which, in my view, is an economically accurate way of describing what is proposed) produced a result of somewhere between 67% and 74% against.
There is but a single poll that concludes that a majority of Edmontonians think that the City of Edmonton should contribute funds to a new downtown arena. Note that the question is phrased differently – while Ipsos Reid asks about “taxpayer dollars”, the poll commissioned by the City of Edmonton from Return on Insight asks whether the “…City of Edmonton should contribute funds to a new downtown arena as long as it does not raise the property tax rate or reallocate infrastructure funds.”
I’m astounded by the difference in result between the polls. I assume that it’s something to do with the language and structure of the polls because I don’t understand how one poll could generate such different results. The questions on the Return on Insight poll are interesting. They were as follows:
1. What is the most important issue facing the City of Edmonton?”
2. Are there other issues of importance you think the City should address?
3. Have you read, heard or seen anything in the past year about a proposed plan for building a new hockey arena in downtown Edmonton?
4. What benefits, if any, do you think building a new arena in downtown Edmonton would bring for the City?
5. There are many different opinions about building a new arena in downtown Edmonton. For each of the following statements I’d like to know if you agree or disagree and is that strongly or somewhat?
a. It is important to keep the Edmonton Oilers in the City
b. Building a new arena with an entertainment complex will provide economic benefits to downtown
c. It’s important that a new arena include a second community ice surface
d. Building a new arena downtown will help revitalize the area
6. “Do you personally support or oppose some of the following ideas about how to fund the building of a new downtown arena?”
a. Funding it partially through user fees like a ticket tax, or levies on concessions and sales in the new arena complex
b. Having a mix of private and public funds to build the new arena
c. Designating a special area around the arena and dedicating the tax revenue from property value increases in the area to pay for the new arena
7. “When the City of Edmonton conducted consultations about the idea of building a new arena, some
people stated they would like to see certain assurances made. For each of the following assurances that
could be made, do you think it is very important, somewhat important……..?”
a. People in the area would be consulted about integration & benefits
b. Public private agreement on financial risks and benefits
c. A location agreement keeping Oilers in town for life of agreement
d. A plan for what happens to Rexall Place afterward
e. Public investment goes into arena not retail areas of new complex
8. “If the project were to proceed, do you think the City of Edmonton should contribute funds to a new
downtown arena as long as it does not raise the property tax rate or reallocate infrastructure funds?”
(The question numbering is a bit dodgy in the post.)
A few things jump out from that, most of which is covered in a fine Edmonton Sun editorial. Yes, really: a fine Edmonton Sun editorial.
I emailed Bruce Cameron, the owner of Return on Insight, to ask if he’d mind having an exchange about the survey that he performed. I didn’t get a response. I note that Return on Insight’s website describes the business as follows:
Prior to establishing Return On Insight, a strategic communications and research consultancy, Bruce worked for some of the most well known names in the polling and advertising business: Gallup Polls, Decima Research, Young & Rubicam Advertising, and the Angus Reid Group. He also founded and managed his own market research firm, Cameron Strategy for over a decade, prior joining NRG Research Group, where he is a Senior Advisor.
He has been a keynote speaker at conferences in North America, the Middle East and Asia on a variety of topics such as public opinion trends, tourism, technology, gaming and the environment. His expertise in qualitative and quantitative research is extensive, including developing proprietary models for concept testing, market segmentation and branding. Most recently he developed a proprietary audience engagement approach called the Integrated Feedback System, featuring a hybrid of tools ranging from traditional polling to online surveying and onsite feedback collected via touch screen kiosks.
Emphasis added. In short, Mr. Cameron seems to be in the business of doing more than just opinion polling. I don’t know precisely what his brief was here, how the questions he asked came to be the questions he asked, why they were worded the way that they were, why questions that weren’t asked weren’t asked or the extent to which his expertise in other areas informed the wording of the questions, although I would have loved to discuss this with him.
At the very least, you have to wonder about the difference between the various polls. They both use torqued language to a degree – the City poll seems to ask people if they agree with a free lunch while the other polls use the phrase “taxpayer money” – you could just as easily say “Should the taxpayers invest…” although, in all fairness, it’s unlikely to be an investment in the sense of one that generates an economic return.
I don’t think any fair person looking to accurately summarize the public feeling as revealed by the various polling would conclude that most Edmontonians want Stelmach to support the project (assuming, of course, that David implicitly means that they also support the project). I think that you can reasonably say that people are ok with contributing funds to an arena if it doesn’t involve raising property taxes or reallocating funds, but that question says nothing about what sort of a return they might expect – I’ve seen a lot of people talking about rents the City might collect, which sort of seems pointless to me – any rent the City collects will be less than the cost to the City, otherwise Katz wouldn’t be bothering with this.
There’s a neat non-partisan site in the United States called Public Agenda that tries to understand how Americans feel on a variety of issues. They have a statement on the bottom of their various issue pages that reads as follows:
Public Agenda uses several indicators to judge when survey results should be reported and used cautiously:
* Results change when survey questions are reworded slightly.
* Results change when implications or trade-offs of a policy are pointed out.
* Results may be misleading if reported in isolation or out of context.
* Other research suggests that people have incomplete or inaccurate knowledge in this area.
This seems to me to be a prime example of that. It’s pretty clear that when the phrase “taxpayer dollars” is used, people are overwhelmingly opposed. When it’s expressed differently – and, I would argue, not entirely accurately or fairly – a different result is obtained. Reading through the results of the City’s survey, I noted that a lot of people think that there will be big economic benefits for downtown Edmonton as a result of the new arena. This raises a red flag for me as to the extent that people are informed on what arenas do and the impact that they have.
I would concede that just asking a question about taxpayer dollars may well generate a skewed response. If there are benefits, supported by solid evidence, people should understand those before they are asked the question. The same thing goes with costs.
I do not accept that, on the evidence available, you can say that Edmontonians overwhelmingly support the project. At best it’s uncertain. It is undeniably shameful cheerleading to say such a thing without acknowledging all of the data points to the contrary. Say what you will about guys like Pat LaForge, at least he presumably gets a paycheque from Katz for his work. I’m not sure what David gets out of pretending that other surveys showing a consistently different result don’t exist or that there might not be methodological questions about the one performed by the City.