October 15, 2018
Perhaps it’s time to amplify the influence of the people themselves. And pollsters can be a vital part of that process: Politicians can speculate about voter psyche ad infinitum, but the numbers, at least, still don’t lie.
Vancouver Sun, Link to article
Most people are familiar with political polling as a means of gauging support for politicians, both incumbents and aspirants.
As widespread as this practice is, critics have long complained that it turns politics and leadership into a popularity contest, a horse race that emphasizes style over substance.
Recently, our firm was involved in a project in the District of North Vancouver in which the issue, and not the individual, was the focus of the research.
Commissioned by the district’s council, NRG was tasked to determine interest in the amalgamation of the District and the City of North Vancouver, which have been separate jurisdictions since 1907 and have since defied every attempt to bring them together.
The results were fascinating — more on them shortly — but the project itself is a noteworthy instance of substance over style, worth looking at as an instrument that can be applied as an alternative, or at least a supplement to, horse-race politics.
District council had tried, without much luck, to interest the City of North Vancouver in discussions about joining the two municipalities, but despite the fact that many residents aren’t sure where the district starts and the city leaves off, there was little taste for the discussion on the part of the city.
Longtime incumbent Mayor Darrell Mussatto was opposed and many on council shared his view. Coun. Rod Clark, a four-term city council fixture, rebuffed overtures to participate from district councillors, advising them to “get stuffed.”
So the district commissioned NRG to go directly to the people of the two North Vancouvers and the results were made public in June, revealing a previously unheralded enthusiasm for the idea.
In a phone survey of more than 600 people evenly divided between residents of the district and the city, a total of 87 per cent responded favourably to the question: Do you think the City and District of North Vancouver should jointly investigate the true costs and benefits of amalgamation?
The favourable response was higher in the district, at 91 per cent of respondents. But City residents, unlike their adamantly opposed council, were impressively 82 per cent in favour. When asked if people see themselves as residents of the city or the district, 86 per cent said they considered themselves citizens of North Vancouver — without distinctions.
We should point out that this was a statistically valid survey with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 per cent at a 95-per-cent level of confidence. Whatever their politicians think, the people of North Van believe they’re part of an entity called North Vancouver, whether or not it formally exists, and would like to know more about making it so.
The publication of the results did nothing to immediately reverse opinions of politicians lined up on either side of the notoriously confusing border between the North Vancouvers. District councillors were encouraged by the strength of public support for amalgamation, which would ultimately turn two councils and two administrations into one, while city councillors dismissed the results.
It was reported that Mussatto said he doesn’t trust the survey’s methodology, commenting that amalgamation would cost money, not save it, yet “they don’t put that in their survey question.” Whatever the question, the survey methodology — an industry-honoured live operator phone survey — was impeccable.
And as for the question, it should be remembered that the survey asked respondents if they would support further study, not if they would support a direct effort to initiate amalgamation. That question is for the future.
It would be too much to expect even a 3.9 per cent margin of error to settle a 111-year-old political argument. But this exercise allows another voice to be heard, that of the citizen. And the numbers and the integrity of the process are so compelling that they require the politicians to listen more and talk less.
The next step in this exercise in democracy fuelled by research will come Oct. 20, when the question is included on the district ballot, along with the various candidates for mayor, council and school board:
“Do you support the establishment and funding, not to exceed $100,000, of an advisory body comprised jointly of residents of the City of North Vancouver and residents of the District of North Vancouver to investigate the costs, benefits and potential implications of reunifying the two municipalities?”
The ballot question will be confined to the district, as the city refused to participate in this next step. And as the research showed, support in the district is even higher than in the city, so expect an overwhelmingly positive response.
Mussatto may be right that the amalgamation question crops up every “20 or 30 years,” but the difference this time — and an important difference it is — is that it’s very clear how residents feel about the issue.
This is a fretful time in the history of democracy. Confidence in politicians and politics is at an all-time low and we need to find a way to improve it.
So perhaps it’s time to amplify the influence of the people themselves. And pollsters can be a vital part of the process: Politicians can speculate about voter psyche ad infinitum, but the numbers, at least, still don’t lie.
NRG Research Group