A single-question telephone survey that caught some Albertans by surprise is being questioned for its motives, its method and its timing.
On Feb. 1, thousands of Albertans received an interactive voice response (IVR) call asking about parents’ rights over the decision of abortion.
“Decisions regarding minor children, such as medical treatments, piercings or tattoos, the use of tanning beds, or even the administration of Advil at school, all require the consent of parents. Minors do not, however, require the consent of their parents to get an abortion in Alberta. Nor is it required for parents to even be notified about their minor child’s abortion,” a woman’s voice reading the preamble said. “What do you believe? Should parental rights include parental consent for a minor child seeking an abortion?”
“This is a push poll,” said Duane Bratt, political science professor at Mount Royal University. “That introductory paragraph before they get to the question is clearly guiding people.”
According to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), a push poll is not a legitimate poll.
“A so-called ‘push poll’ is an insidious form of negative campaigning, disguised as a political poll. ‘Push polls’ are not surveys at all, but rather unethical political telemarketing — telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes, rather than measure opinions,” AAPOR says.
The opinion research association said there are some tell-tale signs of an illegitimate survey, including asking only one or a select few questions about a single candidate or issue, and the questions uniformly convey strongly negative or positive descriptions of the candidate or issue.
The PDF slide deck a group that identifies itself as National Public Research Canada (NPRC) sent to media outlets included a breakdown that weighted results “based on region in the province” and showed the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and the rest of the province.
The MRU political scientist didn’t have a problem with the city breakdown, but Bratt said the lack of demographic information, including proportion of respondents by age, sex, income or education, was a significant red flag.
When initially reached for comment via email, an unnamed NPRC spokesperson said the IVR calls were self-commissioned by a “subsidiary” of an unnamed company. NPRC also said they don’t normally publicize results.
“We want to be seen as independent from our voter contact firm to prevent impressions of bias,” an email from NPRC reads.
But Richard Dur, principal of NPRC parent company Blue Direct, stands behind the methodology, the phrasing of the question and validity of the IVR.
“I would challenge anyone who does not accept the veracity of the survey to go into the field,” he said from his office in Calgary.
Dur is also executive director of ProLife Alberta.
Bratt, and other political organizers Global News spoke with, said they’ve never heard of NPRC.
“When you don’t know who the company is to begin with, saying it’s self-commission doesn’t really help,” Bratt said. “Typically, it’s not unusual for, let’s say, Leger to do their own poll or Angus Reid to commission their own poll, and then send it out to media outlets to raise their profile to get people aware of the company.
“But they typically wouldn’t do it on one question. Typically, they would do it on either a horse race question or a series of questions. So, I would just put that as another red flag.”
Josh Justice, president of Ontario-based political communication and mobilization firm PrimeContact Group, said the wording of the question belied its motives.
“Any time you’re introducing any biased thought or motion invoking language, that would be something that would be against industry standards of polling,” Justice said.
“Even the word ‘even,’ we would never use a word like that: ‘Nor is it required for parents to even be notified about their minor child abortion.’ We’re talking about extreme language that’s being used here to set a narrative that this pollster is attempting to set.
“If we were doing a poll like this, we would do this very, very different. We would state the most basic bare bones facts that does not adhere to one side or the other side of the argument prior to setting up and asking the question.”
Dur, who helped phrase the question, said he believed it was not a leading or biased phrasing.
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“I think it helps to provide context by which one can answer the question best,” he said.
He said the comparisons to the administration of Advil in school are apt when comparing to access to abortion.
“Those who are proponents of abortion often say that abortion is just another medical procedure. Well, if it is just another medical procedure, then shouldn’t it be treated as such?” Dur asked.
Currently in Alberta and Canada, minors can access abortion services if they meet the “mature minor” doctrine, in which they are deemed capable of making the decision and show an understanding of the risks and benefits of the procedure.
Current AHS advice says “a mature minor may provide informed consent to accept or refuse the treatment/procedure(s)” and that mature minor’s legal representative cannot override the decision.
The slide deck from NPRC said the IVR had a 16.2 per cent response rate – the percentage of people who picked up the phone and agreed to answer the question.
Justice said the response rate looked suspicious.
“If you’re lucky, you’re looking at a few per cent,” the pollster said, noting there’s no evidence of whether the calls were to landlines or cellphones. “Sixteen per cent is basically unheard of. I’ve never heard of a number like that, and we used to do a lot of this.”
Dur noted the response rate was very high, saying Blue Direct’s usual IVR response rate in its 14 years of operation sits at around 10 per cent.
He said the timing of the phone survey – the day after Premier Danielle Smith’s video and press conference announcing a suite of policies targeting trans people and associated with so-called “parents’ rights” – was “deliberate” because it was a “front of mind issue.”
“People are thinking about it, so you’re going to have an uptick in response,” Dur said.
Canadian Research Insights Council (CRIC) members are bound by research standards that include principles of transparency, evidence-based interpretation of the data, due care in the design of research like polls.
“We will not knowingly select research tools and methods of analysis that yield misleading conclusions,” one of the standards says.
“When you’re getting into polling designed for media, there’s an additional responsibility because you have the ability to shape public opinion, not just gauge public opinion, which is what we want to avoid doing as pollsters,” Justice said. “We never want our polls to shape public opinion. We’re just looking to gauge what people’s opinions are.”
Justice said the NPRC data didn’t adhere to any polling standards in the country.
“When you’re releasing a poll to media, you need to provide a proper methodology, you need to provide the information on the firm, the contact information, your website,” Justice said. “You need some basic information to be able to back up the science that you’re presenting.”
NPRC and Blue Direct aren’t listed as members of CRIC that release market and/or public opinion research to the public.
AAPOR said another characteristic of a push poll is that “it is difficult to find out which organization conducted the interviews.”
NPRC lacks any online or social media presence, but a web domain that includes NPRC’s name in full was last renewed in April 2023.
Social media posts from citizens said NPRC also apparently conducted IVR polling last year during Toronto’s municipal election and in 2014 during Guelph’s municipal election.
A 2014 article in the Hamilton Spectator stated NPRC was a subsidiary of PrimeContact Group.
The PrimeContact president said he’s never heard of National Public Research Canada, despite how close the name sounds to the PrimeContact subsidiary Canadian National Public Research.
“No, absolutely no connection whatsoever,” Justice said. “It’s not a company I’m familiar with.
“Where I got upset about it was just how close the likeness was to our company. And then I started thinking, ‘Well, is this somebody that’s just trying to piggyback on our company’s name? Or is somebody pretending to be us?’ I wasn’t sure.”
According to Government of Ontario records, the PrimeContact subsidiary Canadian National Public Research was registered in Hamilton in October 2013.
Dur confirmed to Global News that National Public Research Canada is a subsidiary name his company conducts surveys with, along with other subsidiaries like “Canpoll,” “Concerned Action,” “Constituent Outreach” and “Voter Roll Call.”
He said most of the polling his company does is for consultation with his clients in government, private enterprise and non-profit, and this week’s public release of its results was in response to social media posts questioning the origin of the calls.
Dur refused to say what kind of organizations Blue Direct did market research for, only saying the list of clients was “long and vast.”
“We’ve had several clients of all stripes.”
The company’s website characterizes Blue Direct as “conservatives who want to see conservatives win.”
Alberta registry documents show NPRC was registered in January 2016, and Blue Direct in November 2010.
Metadata of the PDF (portable document format) sent to media with NPRC’s results identifies the author as “alissagolob.”
Alissa Golob, a known anti-abortion activist, wrote on her website that she left the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) in 2016 after six years with that organization in order “to start a new political organization that was results-driven and solely focused on nominating and electing pro-life candidates,” according to an archived version of the April 6, 2017 blog entry.
That “new political organization” is RightNow, an anti-abortion organization that has publicly supported former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and former Alberta premier Jason Kenney.
Golob admitted to putting together the four-page slide deck after the NPRC data was sent to her when NPRC decided to release the push poll’s findings.
“They were sent to me, and I did a PDF they could use for public consumption the way every other polling company releases results with the exact same information on it (including margin of error as well as a breakdown of region, etc.),” Golob posted on X, formerly Twitter.
She also called into question the legitimacy of CRIC, calling the industry organization a “made-up organization” with “no oversight power, or any power for that matter.”
She also said that as executive director of an anti-abortion organization, “of course” she was going to post about the findings that supported her cause.
Dur said he sent the data to Golob to “make it pretty” given his knowledge of her skills in graphic design.
“We gave her the data. She put it in a format that was pleasing to the eye,” the Blue Direct principal said. “So far as I know, she’s no pollster. All we did was provide her with the information and say, ‘Okay, here is this. Make it look pretty.’
“I shared with her the results because I knew that she’s one of the executive directors of a pro-life organization and that she would be excited to see what the results were.”
In June 2023, Smith said her government had no plans to change abortion rights.
“Everyone knows my position on the issue of abortions, and my position hasn’t changed,” Smith said after shuffling her cabinet.
That shuffle included appointing Adriana LaGrange as health minister. When asked about any pro-life connections, Smith said LaGrange “is one of our most competent ministers.”
“We will not be changing any laws regarding a woman’s right to choose,” Smith said on June 9, 2023.
Bratt said there could be other ways to restrict abortion in the province that wouldn’t necessitate changing any laws, as evidenced by the recently-announced policies targeting trans people.
If Alberta were to set restrictions around the age to access abortion, it would be a departure from previous decades of judicial and legislative decisions.
“We had those debates in the ’80s with the decriminalization of abortion. And we arrived at the idea that the medical decisions should be made between the patient with the advice of their physician,” University of Calgary health law professor Lorian Hardcastle said. “Age limits are quite a departure from that.”