Monday, January 22, 2007

On triangulation

The CP reports that the Cons have released their planned ballot for the Canadian Wheat Board barley plebiscite. And while there's ample reason to be suspicious about their motives, it looks like the wording could actually help to preserve the Board's single-desk status for at least a little bit longer:
(Chuck) Strahl announced three voting options farmers can choose from in a mail-in plebiscite that will help determine the future of the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly on barley.

Barley producers can vote to maintain the board's export monopoly, scrap the board's role as a barley marketer or allow the board to be an active participant in a free market.
For the rest of this post, I'll refer to a continuation of the Board's single-desk status as option 1, the outright demolition of the Board's role as option 2, and the "Board operating in an open market" theory as option 3.

The article quotes plenty of voices to the effect that the question is biased against the Board. But as far as I can tell, the effect of the wording (at least in the short term) will depend entirely on what kind of spin gets put on the numbers after the plebiscite.

Let's first consider what wording would be most likely to lead to the strongest possible vote for the Board. That would figure to be a presentation of only options 1 and 2 - either maintaining the Board as it now stands, or immediately eliminating the Board for everybody. In that case, a lot of voters who want to retain the option of selling through the Board would presumably vote for option 1 even if they'd otherwise be sympathetic to an anti-Board position.

Of course, the Cons weren't likely to pose that choice given their intention to secure a result which would undermine the Board in the long run. Which means that a two-option poll would likely have instead posed option 1 against option 3 (as the Manitoba government effectively did in its own plebiscite).

Comparing the actual poll to that 1 against 3 dichotomy, it stands to reason that the vast majority of those who would vote for 1 in a two-way poll will do the same in the three-way poll. Meanwhile, the would-be 3 voters in a two-way poll will be split between those who are eager to eliminate the Board outright, and those who want to simply remove the single-desk status and let the Board take its chances in an open market. Which means that the Cons' wording may actually be more likely to produce a plurality in favour of option 1 than the Manitoba wording was.

So why would the Cons decide to word it as they did? There are three possible reasons that I can see - but all can be counteracted with a successful campaign by Board supporters.

The first is that the Cons want to eliminate the Board's single-desk status immediately, and plan to do that by adding the results of options 2 and 3 as "anti-single-desk options" once the results are in. It could well be that the Cons figure they can peel off a few would-be 1 votes - both by presenting option 3 as a "moderate" choice, and by trying to convince voters that they can afford to vote for 3 over 1 based on the strong possibility that 1 would be the leading option in any event. That argument would then be followed by a bait-and-switch after the votes are counted.

But it's hard to see how such a tactic can work as long as the Board's supporters are aware of the risk and act now to move against it. Presumably any 1-3 swing voters can factor the Cons' intentions into their analysis, and vote for option 1 if they don't want to hand Strahl any excuse to undermine the Board.

Another possibility is that Strahl really only wants an excuse to say that the results are inconclusive, and that he'll then feel free to make up his own mind about what farmers want (with a strong bias toward option 3). The three-question ballot could then help the Cons' dismantling efforts to the extent it prevents any one from building majority support.

But again, this danger can be easily enough counteracted if the pro-CWB camp makes clear what's at stake: either a 2 or a 3 is effectively a vote against the Board, while only a 1 will help to preserve it. Which shouldn't be that much more difficult with a 3-question ballot than a 2-question one.

The more dangerous possibility is that Strahl is really more concerned with shaping the longer-term debate about the CWB than with winning this vote at all. And that's where the presentation of removing the Board's single-desk status as a "middle" option could do the most damage to the extent it may shape perceptions going forward.

Of course, such a strategy would only work if the Cons are in a position to follow through after a future federal election. But their seemingly accepting defeat on this vote could perhaps defuse some of the opposition which would otherwise build up among Board supporters, allowing the Cons to bide their time in hopes of a future vote against a less united pro-Board faction. And the Cons' chances of staying in government long enough for that scenario to present itself might well be better (however low they seem now) if the Wheat Board doesn't seem to be a live issue at the time of the next election.

Ultimately, an effective PR campaign both regarding the vote itself and its interpretation should at least be enough to sustain the Board's current standing through the upcoming plebiscite. The real problems lie in the long-term effect of Strahl's attempt to present the removal of single-desk status as the "moderate" option, and in the possibility that the wording will help the Cons through the next election. Which means that while it'll be vital for the Board's supporters to get the word out now both during and after the vote, it'll be equally important to ensure that the Cons don't manage to finesse their way out of the issue politically or shift the terms of the debate down the road.

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