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How much value is there in Yukon’s online survey results?

The government wants to hear what you think.

The government wants to hear what you think. Or at least it wants you to think it does.

In recent weeks the Yukon government has rolled out online surveys for upcoming legislative change including marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and (if you’re really interested in providing your input on more mundane subject matter), updates to the territory’s Legal Profession Act.

I’m not sure what to make of “online surveys” as a form of consultation.

My first concern is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to limit how many times a single person can answers the questions. This raises the concern that some might (to vary a cliché somewhat) “consult early, and consult often”.

There is also no guarantee that responses come actually from the Yukon and it is not unheard of for meddling activists to take an interest in matters taking place in another jurisdiction.

These concerns could, theoretically, be addressed by requiring respondents to provide some tidbit of information that could be used to confirm that only Yukoners provide only one response.

Of course the flip side would be that the knowledge that responses might be tracked back, this might make people be less reluctant to weigh in. After all, the assumption that everyone who supports marijuana legislation is some kind of “stoner” themselves is a disturbingly common assumption. Such a requirement would also clash with a new culture of hypersensitivity in government when it comes to privacy. (This isn’t to denigrate the importance of privacy, but the experience of applying for a CRA “My Account” from the Government of Canada and the lengths taken to secure that information has convinced me that even laudable movements can be taken to far.) The surveys actually discourage people from providing any information that might allow them to be identified.

Another problem with online surveys is that they don’t guarantee the provision of informed opinions. No forum provides such a guarantee but at least, say in public hearings, respondents have to expose themselves to different arguments. In my experience, at least, it often takes only a small tidbit of information, or a little food for thought to cause a person to move off of their first instinct – particularly when the issue is one that the person hadn’t put much thought into in the past.

To the government’s credit it makes a reasonably good effort to give respondents some things to think about for some of the issues before answering the questions.

For example, in the survey on cannabis legalization the government seeks input on what is an appropriate legal age they offer a few pros and cons for both higher and lower thresholds. The survey points to the evidence that marijuana can affect brain development as a reason to set the legal age higher than the bare minimum of 18 as established by Ottawa. On the other hand, it notes, setting the age limit too high could stymie the government’s efforts to reduce the role of the black market.

The nitpicker in me thinks that the respondents should also consider more fundamental philosophical question like whether government has any business protecting people we deem as “adults” – those between the ages of 19-25 – from their own decision making. My own response was that the age ought to be set at 19 – just old enough so that the overwhelming majority of high school students can’t purchase, yet not so high as to infringe on the personal autonomy of those charged with the many responsibilities associated with adulthood.

At the end of the day there is no “perfect” form of consultation, and other methods have drawbacks of their own. Public hearings tend to draw those who are most passionate about their views and have the time available for participation. In some circumstances this may create the impression that their views are more representative of public opinion than they actually are. This was obvious during consultations on hot button environmental issues like planning in the Peel and fracking.

Properly conducted public opinion polls would give the most representative picture of public opinion. But they would be costly (especially for issues requiring an in-depth response), and are even less likely to provide informed opinions than the self-initiated format. Some will just want to get through it quickly and get the interviewer off the phone.

And at the end of the day, how much stock do governments really put on the results of these consultations? Politicians come to the table with their own opinions on these issues, and their own political considerations. How much of this is just going through the motions to make people feel as if their opinions are important and taken into account?

But whatever caveats need to be attached to public surveys with self-selection bias, any consultation is better than nothing and the move to create surveys like these is laudable.

So I would encourage readers to take five to 10 minutes to weigh in on these issues and others that will undoubtedly arise in the future.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.