Mr. Speaker, the purpose of Bill C-309 tabled on February 22, 1995 by the hon. member for Red Deer is to amend the Access to Information Act. Its main objective is to oblige the government to disclose results obtained and methods used in public opinion polls commissioned by the government through various agencies.
The proposed legislation provides that the government shall lay before this House a report of the results of public opinion polls it has commissioned.
We support this initiative because it encourages openness and the democratic exercise of power. The debate on public opinion polls and the need for making this tool more transparent is mainly about whether these polls undermine the democratic process by influencing the behaviour of society in general.
Recent studies have shown that publication of these polls can have an impact on a close race, especially towards the end of the campaign. The publication of public opinion polls can have a positive or negative impact on the morale of volunteer campaign workers and donors.
Party strategists complain that it is hard to retrieve lost ground when the media have decided, on the basis of public opinion polls, that a party is no longer in the running. Opinion polls may be purposely misinterpreted, if the technical information provided is too incomplete to assess the validity of the results.
Clearly, the secret use of this powerful instrument is a first step towards arbitrary use of power and a practice that is a threat to democracy. What seems to be a highly scientific instrument that confers a certain authority becomes, in the hands of unscrupulous politicians, a tool for political propaganda and manipulation. I am thinking, for instance, of the group for Canadian unity, a special unit of the Privy Council of this government.
Working on behalf of the No coalition, the intergovernmental affairs office, located in an office tower in downtown Ottawa, attempts to implement the vision of the No forces, the status quo, which will make debtors and paupers of all Quebecers and even Canadians. This anti-referendum unit funded with public money has a budget of more than three million dollars. Part of this money is spent to commission public opinion polls whose methods and results are used to influence the democratic process in the Quebec referendum.
This Canadian unity group, more obscure and secretive by far than the centre for Canadian unity was during the 1980 campaign,
commissions public opinion polls on a weekly basis and uses them to manipulate public opinion in a democratic society. In fact, because of the secret nature of these polls, nothing prevents this government from using methods that are questionable from a scientific point of view and thus commissioning results that will influence the vote.
Nothing prevents the government from only disclosing polls that are favourable and eliminating those that might be less favourable to its negative vision. Polling companies play a role that has an impact not only on elections but also on policy development. Governments use public opinion polls to define their positions on various controversial issues and to determine their priorities. Federal ministers therefore take the initiative of commissioning polls to test public reaction to various options. In short, the government is no longer concerned about the content of its policies but focusses on their form based on public opinion polls. The famous Axworthy reform is an excellent example.
The amounts allocated by the federal government for public opinion polls are astronomical. During the period from April 1990 to November 1991, a mere 19 months, apparently over $10 million in expenditures were approved by the Department of Supply and Services and committed by the federal government for public opinion polls. That amount does not include contracts awarded directly by departments.
For all these reasons it is essential for transparency to become the main objective of democratic governments when they make use of public opinion polls. Bill 309 calls for effective measures to ensure government transparency when public opinion polls are used. The report submitted to the House of Commons must therefore indicate the nature of the public opinion poll, the questions asked and a summary of the responses given, the name of the person or firm commissioned to conduct the poll and finally, its cost. This is a bill with the potential to change the face of Canadian style democracy.
Speaking of surveys, I would like to comment very briefly if I may on the results of the survey carried out by Léger and Léger for Le Journal de Montréal and the Globe and Mail , released last Saturday, the day before yesterday.
With two weeks to go until referendum day, the yes side shows a solid 49.2 per cent compared to 50.8 per cent for the no side. In only a few weeks we have taken over five of the federalists' percentage points, reducing the difference to a mere 1.6 per cent.
This considerable advance is in large part due to what the press is calling the "Bouchard factor", but it must be pointed out that this week we gained only two percentage points.
Before distribution of the undecided voters, 45 per cent of respondents stated that they would vote yes to the referendum question, while 42.4 per cent indicated that they would vote no.
Among those whose minds were definitely made up, I must point out that 52.2 per cent of francophone respondents stated that they will be voting yes, compared to only 34.3 per cent who will vote no.
There are a number of explanations for this upturn in support for the sovereignist camp. We have the most popular, most credible, most loved leaders in Quebec on our side in Mr. Bouchard, Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Dumont. Lagging far behind them are the spokespersons for the no side, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Minister of Labour, Mr. Johnson, and the hon. member for Sherbrooke.
We will win this coming October 30 because we are promoting the project of a just society that is fair for all, a project of generosity and compassion for the most disadvantaged segments of our society: the unemployed, welfare recipients, immigrants, refugees, pensioners and so on. On the other hand, the blueprint for society of this government, of the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Reform, is to protect big capital, those who are already advantaged. The program of the ministers of finance and of human resources development, of Ontario's Mike Harris and Alberta's Ralph Klein is to protect the rich and neglect the poor.
In conclusion, I state that the Bloc Quebecois supports Bill C-309.