reacting to public opinion on the September 11 terrorist attacks is a dangerous minefield for public policy-makers.Within a day of the attacks, the North American public was treated to a variety of media polls detailing the lengths to which we will go to ensure our personal and societal security.
We learned from the Globe and Mail-CTV poll a majority of Canadians want our security services to be given more power to fight terrorism, even if it means that they might "tap my phone, open my mail or read my personal e-mail."
Some 80 per cent favour a mandatory fingerprint-bearing national identity card for every Canadian. Even more astounding, some 73 per cent were of the opinion that Canada should join the U.S.
So, in the face of this "scientific" evidence, how does a Canadian policy-maker react? Do we abide by the public's wishes?
My advice, based on 27 years of conducting public opinion polls (the last 10 years for the Liberal party), is to ignore these shallow and useless polls entirely. To make any policy based on answers to polls taken in the weeks following a major tragedy is foolish.
The public was, and still is, in a state of trauma, anticipation and flux. Any policy or strategy based on what people say in reaction mode risks missing the target completely.
The public is still out of balance. We need to wait until there has been time to deliberate.
Public opinion on policy issues starts as raw opinion, always unformed, volatile, malleable and often self-contradictory. It is then "fine-tuned" by consideration and deliberation, by trade-offs and judgment calls.
If it survives, the opinion grows stable and hard, and people have a greater understanding of the consequences of their position.
Unfortunately, in their quest to grab a headline, the journalist masters of these media pollsters, many of whom write the survey questions themselves, fail to understand that what they are measuring is not public opinion at all but a venting of frustration or fear.
I suspect that in late September a majority of Canadians might even have endorsed the most recent harebrained solution to airline security -- a retinal scan to ensure the person who bought the ticket is the same one taking the flight.
Once we've "normalized" our opinion, this 80-per-cent approval will snap back to 12 per cent, and people will regard their mail, phone conversations, e-mail and credit card purchases as private affairs that should not be in the public domain.
Once this happens, we won't be happy to find that in the meantime the government has gone ahead and mandated ID cards, fingerprinting and similar incursions on privacy based on a bunch of shallow media polls.
Once we've returned to the familiar issues of national unity, health care, Stockwell Day, environmental concerns and what Britney Spears wore to the Grammy Awards, media polls will again be worth reading, and perhaps even worth taking note of.
Michael Marzolini is chair and CEO of POLLARA.