Ontario's survey on alcohol retailing is open to abuse, critics say

If you really want the Ford government to allow corner stores and big box outlets to sell alcohol, you can give that feedback to the province many, many times over.

Anyone can do province's online poll on 'alcohol choice' multiple times, potentially skewing data

The Ford government is asking Ontarians what changes they would like to see in alcohol retailing, with such options as more locations, more private retailers and more stand-alone stores that only sell alcohol. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

If you really want the Ford government to allow corner stores and big box outlets to sell alcohol, you can give that feedback to the province many, many times over. 

Ontario's new online survey about changing the alcohol retailing rules in Ontario does not limit the number of times a person can respond.

I did the survey 10 times in the space of an hour on Tuesday from the same computer, sometimes filing exactly the same answers as a previous survey, sometimes different ones. 

That could allow interest groups — whether favouring greater privatization in alcohol sales or opposing it — to skew the results, experts say. If a politician can hire a troll farm to influence an election, or if scalper bots can buy up tickets to resell at a profit, a company or union could pay a firm to generate thousands of responses designed to look like public input.

"Have your say on modernizing the rules for the sale and consumption of alcohol in Ontario," says the government's online survey. It asks Ontarians what changes they would like to see in alcohol retailing, with such options as more locations, more private retailers, and more stand-alone stores that only sell alcohol products. The survey is open for responses until Feb. 1. 

Experts in research methodology question why the government set up the survey in a way that could cast doubt on the accuracy of the data. 

The survey is open to abuse, said Margaret Brigley, CEO of Corporate Research Associates, a national market research firm headquartered in Halifax. 

One question in the Ontario government's online survey about expanding alcohol sales.

"There's the opportunity for people to influence the results, if they're a lobby group that is so inclined," Brigley said in a phone interview Tuesday. 

The government will for the most part be able to identify repeated and duplicate entries through what it calls an "in-depth analysis of submissions," says a spokesperson for Finance Minister Vic Fedeli. 

"Online consultations can help people to provide feedback on government decisions and policies, quickly and easily," said Fedeli's press secretary, Robert Gibson.

"We are inviting the public to share their views on how we can increase choice and convenience in a safe and responsible way," said Gibson in an email Tuesday to CBC News. "We look forward to hearing what all participants have to say."

The fundamental problem with such an online survey is that it does not give the government a statistically accurate sample of public opinion in Ontario, says Matthias Schonlau, a professor of statistics at the University of Waterloo. 

The province's online survey on alcohol sales asks: 'Do you have any other comments or suggestions about how we can modernize Ontario’s alcohol sector?' (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"It's fine to collect that data but it's not a scientific survey," Schonlau said Tuesday in a phone interview.

"People could give multiple answers, you could have specific agendas by individuals or companies that sponsor internet trolls to generate a lot of data," he said. 

Both Schonlau and Brigley said to truly get an accurate representation of public opinion on the issue, the government should conduct randomized polling. 

The online survey is only one way the government will get public input, said Gibson. He said the province will also hold roundtable discussions with key groups such as "alcohol producers, public health and safety organizations, retailers, municipalities, consumer groups, and restaurants and bars."

Premier Doug Ford himself cast doubt on the accuracy of another online survey conducted by his government. Last month, Ford claimed "certain groups" flooded the government's consultation website on education reforms on its first day. The initial response, obtained under the freedom of information act, showed widepsread support for the Wynne government's sex-ed curriculum, something Ford has promised to scrap. 

The Ontario government is conducting this online survey about changing the rules on alcohol sales and consumption.

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh says the government's online surveys amount to "phony consultations" because the PCs are only interested in answers that justify the moves they want to make.

"This [alcohol convenience survey] is again another one of those fishing expeditions to get the type of responses they were looking for," said Singh in an interview Tuesday. 

Singh said she is concerned the government will use that data to make its case for more private sector involvement in alcohol sales and potentially privatizing the LCBO. 

"You can answer this survey an unlimited number of times; you absolutely can skew the data," she said.

The Ford government has already promised to allow the sale of beer from corner stores. However, it must first renegotiate an agreement with Brewers' Retail, owners of The Beer Store, prohibiting further expansion of retail outlets for beer beyond a limited number of supermarkets until the deal expires in 2025.


Mike Crawley

Provincial affairs reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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