The Conservatives Secret Prostitution Poll

July 30, 2014

Imagine – the government introduces controversial legislation.  In support of the legislation the Minister of Justice relies on support from a ‘majority’ of Canadians.

The government had commissioned a poll on the issue.  

A parliamentary committee studying the legislation asks the minister to produce polling data.

The government refuses to disclose the information.  

After the committee concludes its study, the government’s polling data is leaked – it indicates that there is no public consensus on the legislation and a majority of the population may not actually support the government’s position.  

It happened – for real.

In Canada.

The bill in question was the government’s prostitution bill – C-36.

In December 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada – in the case of Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford – found many of Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional.

It was in response to this decision that the Conservatives tabled their long-awaited prostitution legislation.

In June, Justice Minister Peter MacKay urged all members of the House to support the legislation, saying:

The results of the government’s extensive public consultations indicate and demonstrate that Canadians are still divided on this issue, but overall the results show that the majority of Canadians consulted prefer a criminal law response, one that involves the criminalization of purchasers of sexual services

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “I think that our consultations certainly indicate majority support for the actions we are taking.”

At best these were an overstatements of the popular support the legislation enjoyed – and the government must have known it.

The government had commissioned a poll of the public’s support for the criminalization of prostitution.  It cost $175,000.  

The results were kept secret.  

In July, MacKay appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee who were studying the prostitution bill.   

The committee process was not without controversy itself – there were allegations that the conservative-dominated committee stacked the witness list with evangelicals and religious groups, and of course there was the inappropriate behaviour of Conservative MP Robert Goguen who made rape jokes in an attempt to score cheap political points.

Most shockingly – as noted by Liberal justice critic Sean Casey – MacKay refused to answer questions about the Conservative’s secret polling data.  

Despite repeated calls for transparency from both the Liberals and NDP MacKay refused to disclose the poll results – data that would undoubtedly have been valuable to the committee studying the issue.

Here is the full exchange between Casey and MacKay:

Mr. Sean Casey:

I want to come back to Madam Boivin’s question with respect to the $175,000 survey or poll that was done by Ipsos Reid. You have indicated that we’re going to be able to see it once these hearings are over.

Mr. Minister, you have the power to allow us to see that sooner, do you not?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

The survey itself was not particular to this question of prostitution only, and so there is a normal six-month time period that is invoked for when that polling information will be released.

I should note for the record, Mr. Casey, that you’re aware there have been other surveys done and other polling information available that has been released or is in the public domain.

I also want to provide a correction. I said there will be a technical bill presented to the committee. There will be a technical paper that was produced by the department, and that technical paper is available in French and English. I’m informed that it will be tabled with this committee by leave, and it will be provided to you so that you will have it for your deliberations this week.

Mr. Sean Casey:

Mr. Minister, do you have the power to abridge the time in which we see this $175,000 Ipsos Reid survey? Do you have the power to give that to us before we examine all these witnesses?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

There is a six-month timeframe that we will respect.

Mr. Sean Casey:

So you have the power, but you’re deciding not to exercise it?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

I didn’t say that. I said we’ll respect the six-month timeframe.

Mr. Sean Casey:

Do you have the power to abridge it?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

We’ll release it when the six-month timeframe is up.

Mr. Sean Casey:

Is that a yes or a no?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

We’ll release it when the six-month timeframe is up, Mr. Casey.

Mr. Sean Casey:

You won’t tell me whether or not you have the power to abridge it, but if you do, you’re not going to exercise it.

Hon. Peter MacKay:

What I’m telling you is that you’ll have the information when the six-month period is up.

Mr. Sean Casey:

Mr. Minister, I requested that Ipsos Reid appear as a witness before this committee, but they’re not on the witness list. Did your office have anything to do with that?

Hon. Peter MacKay:

Absolutely not. We don’t control the witness list. That’s entirely within the purview of the committee.

The secret poll that MacKay refused to discuss was leaked to the Toronto Star a day after the committee concluded its study of the legislation.

As it turns out a slim majority -51.2 per cent of Canadians – thought buying sexual services should be illegal and a minority of Canadians –  49.8 per cent – think selling sex should be illegal.

The Globe and Mail’s Tabatha Southey made the excellent observation that these numbers hardly support the ‘majority’ MacKay and Harper were trumpeting:

The poll has a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points – meaning that, barring some new definitions of the words “majority” or “support,” our prime minister is as wrong about his facts as he is about the bill he claims those facts inspired – a bill that puts the lives of sex workers at risk.

So – the government commissioned a secret poll and then claimed that the majority of Canadian’s supported their position.  While the law was being studied the government had the relevant polling data but refused to disclose it.

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the Conservative government and MacKay did not release the data because they knew it was not as favourable as they represented it to be.

Lets leave aside the fact the the Conservatives stacked the committee witness list and made rape jokes.  

The real controversy should be the government’s willful obfuscation and misrepresentation of facts – we deserve better.

After all – The Supreme Court made it clear – lives are at stake.