Pushed Left has alerted the blogosphere to the disturbing background to a new “survey” of Canadians which has received appallingly credulous coverage from our nation’s media. The report in question is a purported “survey” of focus groups by a lobbying firm called Ensight, called Mind Your Majority, which purports to show that Canadians are unanimously enthusiastic about the privatization of healthcare and Harper’s welcoming stance toward the business sector. It has received favourable coverage in the CBC, Globe & Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, and Vancouver Sun.
There’s only one problem with this coverage: Ensight is not, as the Post calls it, a “pollster.” It is a lobbying firm. And it is a specifically Conservative one, with a staff chock full of Tory veterans and Harper loyalists. This sort of report is plainly not trustworthy. I wonder if this is the sort of shenanigans we can expect from the Harper Government™ over the next four years. Don’t take an Ensight opinion analysis any more seriously than you would a propaganda piece from the Fraser Institute — which is to say, direct it swiftly to the recycling bin. But from a broader perspective, this is it, folks. The opening shots of the final battle for public healthcare have now been fired.
The 19-page report is apparently the product of numerous focus groups conducted on Tuesday, and was ready for release to the media on Thursday — a remarkably quick turnaround for a piece as broad as this one, unless of course you have determined the conclusions in advance, which would speed things along considerably. Among other things, it claims that “many Canadians” — the exact numbers are unspecified, so they could be 100% or they could just be a small minority — are “fed up with political games,” and are impressed by Harper’s “solid track record on the economy.” It strongly implies that Canadians support Harper’s corporate tax cuts, and most importantly claims that Canadians now have a “willingness to explore new private health care delivery.”
Obviously this screed cannot be taken as serious evidence of anything at all, given that it is an exercise in vague statements about “what Canadians expect” rather than a statement of just how firm the support really encountered really was. Even by the mediocre standards of the Fraser Institute, this report falls flat on its face and should have been rubbished immediately. Instead it received positive national press. Ensight vaguely claims that “we heard the same thing from everybody.” That sort of claim should instantly tell you that the whole thing is bullshit. There’s no way you can convince me that every single Canadian in 12 focus groups from coast to coast told you the same thing on the couple of dozen different issues discussed in this report. Indeed, judging from Monday’s results, in any group of 124 Canadians, you would expect to see around 75 Liberal and NDP voters, and it’s hard to see more than a bare handful of them agreeing with this report’s conclusions.
The fact that Mr. Jaime Watt actually expects to get away with such a statement is an indication of how low the media’s reputation for critical reporting has sunk. And he did get away with it. Incredibly, even the Star couldn’t muster a faint criticism of the report, although it does contain the telltale remark that Ensight’s findings jive completely with some projections that top Conservative insider Guy Giorno apparently made to the Star‘s reporter on election night. The CBC, which the average Conservative blogger appears to regard as a reincarnation of Karl Marx, was quite typical in its coverage: a faithful summary of Ensight’s talking points without even a hint that they found some of the claims just a little bit hard to believe.
Instead, I would suggest that you regard Mind Your Majority as a testing-the-waters piece produced by a small group of Conservative insiders as an expression of where the government plans to go over the next four years and an attempt to consider the large number of Canadians who (like me) feel that there is still a role for universal healthcare and that Harper is no more trustworthy — on the economy or any other subject — than any other politician, and actually much less so than some. I’ll ask the basic questions that, it appears, every major media organization failed to.
First, who is Jaime Watt? He was a key strategist in the Conservative government of Ontario premier Mike Harris. After that he worked on the leadership bid of Jim Flaherty, now Harper’s finance minister. Watt is believed to have been the one responsible for the appallingly outlandish attack press release which described Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty as an “evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet” during the 2003 election. In the best tradition of Bruce Carson, Watt is also a convicted criminal, having served a brief jail sentence in the 1980s for fraud and forgery in connection with his clothing business.
Watt’s co-author on the new study is John Weir, currently a registered lobby for several environmental organizations and the tobacco industry. Like Watt, Weir spent the 1990s working in Harris’s office and then backed Jim Flaherty. His Ensight bio proudly boasts that he has also worked as a campaign strategist for Flaherty’s husband Christine Elliott (also an Ontario Conservative politician) and for Harper’s justice minister Vic Toews.
These two Tory insiders have an obvious reason to produce a study supportive of the Harper government but dressed in objective garb, and unfortunately they’re not the only Conservative insiders working in what is apparently (according to the Post) now billing itself as a polling firm. Other employees include Hugh Mackenzie (chief of staff to an earlier Ontario Tory leader, Frank Miller); two former multinational drug company employees, Jacquie Larocque and Melisa Ngan; an aide to another Harper minister, John Baird, named Will Stewart; a former John McCain campaign staffer, Sara Rodier; the executive assistant to Ontario PC premier Ernie Eves, named Michelle Mackenzie; and, just to balance out the crowd, an old NDP strategist who worked for Bob Rae, Robin Sears.
Two months ago, Stewart was found guilty of breaching the Lobbyists’ Code for helping organize a fundraising dinner for Harper Government minister Lisa Raitt while he was simultaneously registered to lobby her. Stewart does not appear to have been handed any punishment for his contempt for democracy. But by far the most remarkable member of the team is Jason Lietaer, who formerly worked as a tobacco lobbyist and a member of the secretive Conservative Research Group before spending this past election in Harper’s war room.
So, media. You honestly expect me to believe that just three days after the close of the campaign, a lobbying outfit staffed almost entirely by federal and Ontario Conservatives just happened to independently produce a report that claims that “everybody” in Canada supports the Harper Government and especially that everybody in Canada is interested in the privatization of healthcare? That just happened, did it?
It’s worth noting that Ensight is a for-profit firm, not a “charitable” think tank like the Fraser Institute or the Frontier Centre. That means they produce their reports for paying clients, not just out of the generosity of their hearts. It’s worth asking who paid for this particular report. They don’t bother to mention that important detail in the fine print of Mind Your Majority.Tweet