Ever since that day in 1969 when I chased W.A.C (“Wacky”) Bennett, the long-time Premier of British Columbia, through the corridors of a high school in Salmon Arm, in the interior of that beautiful province, hoping to ask him how he could continue to support in the current election one of his local candidates who had recently been convicted of beating his wife, ever since that time, I have never believed opinion polls should be allowed in the run-up to elections.
It has always seemed to me that such polls are not so much polls of current opinion as they have become guides to bewildered voters on how to vote, and, when used aggressively, almost as orders to the doubtful telling them how they must vote. One might almost say that at such times, the relevant authorities use these polls as a means of issuing orders to hesitant voters as to how, where, when and for whom they must register their vote.
I came to that conclusion because Wacky Bennett had forbidden the publication of such polls in the weeks leading up to elections, thus, at a single stroke, depriving all the wiseacres in the local press of their indispensible tool in their ceaseless efforts to pretend to know what had been going on before their eyes.
You have only to cover one election to realize how little understanding any reporter can have of the movement of opinion as the campaign proceeds, that is, in the absence of any poll purporting to foretell the results. I covered that BC provincial election diligently, talked to as many voters as I could find, who probably amounted to about 100 or so, and was then expected, on the basis of those 100 conversations, to pronounce learnedly on the issue of the general opinion, and the mysteries of its supposed changes.
That is the situation absent polling. The situation is totally changed with the publication of these polls: suddenly, every reporter covering the event uses the poll results as his or her guide to the way things are moving. They do this because it is the only guide available to them, without which they would simply have to exercise their judgment arrived at by the judicious application of their own experience and knowledge and intuition.
Quite impossible, of course, but I tried. The fact was, Wacky Bennett, a smalltown hardware merchant who later founded the first B.C. vineyard for the production of wine, had always been attracted to the idea of politics, and by 1969 was entering his twelfth campaign, his seventh election as British Columbia’s irrepressible premier, after five false starts, making him the longest-serving premier in the history of British Columbia. He started off in his late thirties as a member of the Progressive-Conservatives, then joined another, Labour, party in an unsuccessful coalition, and by the time I was chasing him around the high school, he had already run an eccentric but highly successful provincial government for 17 years. Although he had gotten into politics as leader of the Social Credit League, an idea imported from Alberta, he never showed any interest in the monetary theories of Social Credit, or in the fanatical right-wing religion with which it was combined in Alberta, and, truth to tell, even though he had bequeathed to his province such publicly-owned institutions as B.C. Ferries, B.C. Hydro, B.C. Rail and the Bank of British Columbia, it did seem that the populace had had about as much of him as they could stand after all those years.
Certainly Tom Berger, the leader of the New Democratic Party in B.C. in 1969 --- and incidentally one of the few Canadians of my acquaintance who I would be prepared to describe as “a great Canadian” no ifs or buts, whose own legacy to the nation is immense --- was totally convinced he was on the path to a certain victory in the election, as, coincidentally, were all of the residents, those 100 or so long-suffering citizens whose opinion I had tried to canvass in my coverage. I had met only one man who was convinced that Wacky would not only win the election but would win with an increased majority of votes and seats. And that man was Wacky himself. A totally ridiculous idea, of course completely out of touch with the prevailing opinion, which had Wacky retiring from a heavy defeat, his tail between his legs, always supposing, of course, that anyone would be foolish enough to apply such a metaphor to the ever-ebullient Premier Wacky.
Well,, what d’yuh know? Not only did Wacky win the election, his seventh in a row, but he did so with an increased majority, leaving Berger and his NDP wallowing in the pain of a 38 seats to 12 humiliating defeat. Along the way I had enlivened the readers of The Montreal Star with a story that began by saying the electors of BC had discovered the man to save them from socialism--- it was Tom Berger, leader of the NDP. A nice little joke, but one that suggested that the local “socialist” party, like so many others in so many other places and at so many other times, might have been better off to have stuck to their original beliefs, rather than constantly trimming them to the winds of electoral convenience, a method which has led to their party being hardly worth supporting by the time they are finally elected to office (pace Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in 1990), if ever such a drastic event should overcome them, which I have to admit is seldom enough.
I have been brought to these reflections about polling by the excessive power granted in these days to election polling, as manifested in our recent national election. I suppose one could say that there would be no harm in polling if, say, one poll were published a month before the election, and then left to work its magic, if any, along with all the other influences that work to influence voters. But that is not what is happening nowadays. The CBC, for example, has its own resident pollster, Eric Grenier, whose conclusions are not merely published by the network but are forcibly shoved down our throats through constant repetition --- not just almost every day as we approached the election, but sometimes even more than once a day, sometimes it seemed, two and even three appearances, telling us in no uncertain terms, for example, that both sides are equal, and the possibility of a minority government is looming before us all, not only telling us this, but insisting on it forcibly, as if it were a dictate handed down from on high, irrefutable and unquestionable. The impact is worse, of course, when Grenier’s conclusions are taken up by one of the network’s bird-brain programme moderators, who translate his recital of likelihoods into fact, as if the election has already been held and the conclusion announced.
I kid you not: I have heard it from the very lips of these young men and women who spoke, even before the vote was announced, as if the die was already cast, the decision made, or on the way to being made, and the conclusions more or less irrefutable.
This sort of insistence on the elevation of this tool to a position given more prominence than others is an insult to the intelligence of the voters, who are none the less told how important it is for them to vote to maintain the democratic purity of our system. In fact, one can tell from the sort of comments provided in advance of polling by prospective voters, that all this brainwashing by pollsters has already had its effect, and they are intending to vote in such as way as to make the prognostications of the pollsters more real than the vote itself.
Oh, dear, oh dear… can’t they just let us all vote, for whichever side we favour, and the devil take the hindmost?