Editorial: Campaign zeal sullies Greens

The Green Party’s well-nurtured reputation for taking the political high road took a hit last week when it admitted to some election trickery in Victoria that was worthy of more established parties.

It’s a lesson to party workers about the dangers of giving in to a desire to win at all costs. And it’s a lesson to voters to read the fine print on opinion polls.

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The party has made a compliance agreement with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, in which it admitted that it handed out 1,200 misleading flyers the day before the Oct. 19 federal election.

The flyers, which were delivered door-to-door in selected neighbourhoods, were headed: “It’s a Two-Way Race — the Choice is Yours Victoria.” According to the flyers, new polling results showed Jo-Ann Roberts of the Greens one point behind NDP candidate Murray Rankin.

The poll the party used had a margin of error of 9.8 percentage points, which made it almost useless, and the flyers didn’t disclose that. The flyers also didn’t disclose that the results they trumpeted were from Oct. 13, and later polls showed the party’s support was slipping.

The election commissioner called foul. The Greens escaped charges by signing the compliance agreement, but can be prosecuted if they violate the deal.

The natural question is: What were they thinking? The obvious answer is: They were thinking about winning.

As the agreement says: “The flyer was intended as an invitation for Conservative supporters to vote strategically for the Green Party candidate, whose support, according to the flyer, was within one percentage point of the NDP candidate in Victoria.”

The party said the polls were intended for internal use, although it’s hard to imagine what use political strategists could make of a poll with such a huge margin of error. The national office approved the flyers, but the executive director and her deputy didn’t pass along an advisory about the information that had to be included when publishing poll results, information such as the margin of error.

In the heat of a campaign, when the Greens thought they had a real chance of unseating Rankin and sending another MP to Ottawa, ambition overwhelmed ethics. For a party that prides itself on doing politics differently, it’s a betrayal.

When you believe in the cause, as most political workers do, it’s easy to be tempted to cut corners, to play with the truth, to leave out inconvenient facts. That’s why voters get cynical about politics.

All voters, cynical or not, should keep those political temptations in mind, and bring a critical eye when they look at anything that comes from parties. Even from the Green Party.

Polls are common political tools, but when they are used in advertising or published in news stories, voters must pay attention to the fine print.

The first thing to look at is the margin of error, which is plus or minus a certain percentage. In the Green case, it was plus or minus 9.8 percentage points. That margin of error is connected to the sample size. The larger the sample, the lower the margin of error.

We should also look for the date the questions were asked and the wording of the question. That last one often gets left out. And finally: Who paid for the poll?

The compliance agreement means the party escapes the shame of being charged with violating the elections laws, but it can’t escape responsibility for what its workers did.

The Green Party prides itself on being ethical. The flyer incident makes a mockery of that claim.

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