The Globe & Mail
Friday, May 30, 1997
page A8

Affront to rights or much ado about nothing?

by André Picard

POLL, poll, poll, poll, poll, p-o-l-l, POLL.

There. Now we should have it out of our systems.

Because, come midnight, Canadian media outlets will bebreaking the law if they publish opinion-poll results -- including ones that have been previously released.

Even informal surveys such as burger polls are subject to the ban. Be warned: If you order a Big Mac Manning tomorrow, you may got to prison. Dare utter the Pope's real name -- he's a Pole -- and off you go to the big house.

The poll ban was enacted in 1993 as part of an overhaul of the Elections Act. The ban sent media organizations into a tizzy. Southam Inc., which owns 32 dailies, and Thomson Newspapers Co. Ltd., which owns another nine dailies in Canada (including this august publication) are challenging the law, a court fight that has limped all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The top court decided recently that it would not suspend the ban to allow the publication of polls during the final 72 hours of this scintillating federal election campaign.

It is unlikely that any paper will defy the ban, but the pointy heads in the corner office (as reporters call editorial writers) are expected to harrumph, stomp their feet in deep shag, and clutch their dog-eared thesauri for comfort until this dark age of oppression passes on Tuesday -- at which time they will pontificate about what they like to call the "only poll that matters".

Media lawyer say that "limiting the marketplace of ideas" will cause "irreparable harm" to voters, but there is little indication of a massive popular uprising in demand of more polls. Besides, there will be enough polls published today to last a lifetime.

Yet, in the lawyerly scenario, voters are said to be crying out in anger: "Help, help, I'm being repressed. It's my constitutional right to know the number some mathematician has extrapolated from a survey of 2,000 people stupid enough to answer the phone during dinner."

The reality is that it is a slim minority of the electorate who will be suffering delirium tremens for the 72 hours or so that polls are not available, namely the 17-newscast-a-day junkies, bond traders, journalists, and political workers.

In France, where a poll ban for the week leading up to voting day has been law for 20 years, the obsessives turned to the Internet, where Swiss and British papers were happy to supply the forbidden fruit. One daily, France-Soir, openly mocked the law by publishing an Internet address where polling data was readily available.

One expects a similar situation here. After all, Elections Canada has already clashed with Internet users and come out on the losing end of the battle to control information in cyberspace.

When the Chief Electoral Officer shut down the Vote Green web page as unauthorized publicity, the site was simply copied in a handful of other countries, out of reach of Canadian law but within easy access of Canadians.

One suspects the poll ban will be similar flouted but that the vast majority of people won't take the trouble to go searching in cyberspace.

In fact, there is little hint that even if there were a flurry of last-minute polls people would go out of their way to read them. Just ook to Britain, where there is no poll ban and where the dailies were tripping over each other to get the latest results.

Of the eleven national papers (five broadsheets and six tabloids), nine showed notable declines in circulation during the recent election campaign. Television news ratings also dived in the weeks leading to the vote.

In Canada, as in Britain, there is a none-too-subtle message in the seeming lack of interest. The voters seem to be saying: "We have already made up out minds and we will let you in on the secret Monday night."

Copyright © 1997 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.