Last winter (from December to February 15th) the BC government held public consultations on “new statutory protections to further safeguard our environment from cosmetic chemical pesticides.” The response was overwhelming. As a summary of the public comments released at the end of March notes:
More than 8,000 comments, signatures on petitions or submissions were received between December 2009 and the end of February 2010 in response to the ministry’s request for comments on the cosmetic use of pesticides in British Columbia. These responses included: petitions with individual signatures (more than 4,000 signatures); copies of letters or e-mails sent to Members of the Legislature (MLAs) or the Minister of Environment (about 3,000 individual items of correspondence); individually signed form (or template) letters (more than 500); and responses or submissions specifically addressing the consultation issues and topic areas identified in the consultation paper prepared by the ministry (more than 800 by e-mail, fax or attached file).
For those interested, here's West Coast Environmental Law's submissions - just one of the more than 800 submissions discussing the issues raised in the Ministry's consultation paper.
The publicly available summary seemed incomplete. After highlighting the immense public interest in this consultation, the summary fails to tell us anything about how many of the respondents would like to see an outright ban on pesticides, and what portion would prefer other alternatives. Instead the report simply talks about “many respondents” said X, “while others” said Y – never giving any indication to the Ministry of where public support lies.
Since then – with the exception of the March summary – we’ve heard nothing. However, recent communications with Ministry of Environment staff confirm that the respondents overwhelmingly supported a ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides. Moreover, Freedom of Information documents received by West Coast Environmental Law show that this high level of public support for a ban was never properly communicated to the Minister and suggest that more public pressure needs to be brought to bear before the government will consider a ban on cosmetic pesticides.
This post will give the best information about what the province heard through its consultation. A companion blog post – What’s the Province thinking about pesticides? – will examine what the documents received suggest the province’s next steps on pesticides might be.
High levels of public support for a cosmetic pesticide ban
My information request was aimed at finding out more about how the government was analyzing the results of the public consultation. I suspected that earlier drafts of the report or separate reports, not disclosed to the public, would contain this level of analysis. Assuming that all of the relevant documents were disclosed to me, it would appear that my suspicion was wrong. The only additional analysis we received as a result of the request is just as vague in terms of the levels of public support as the public summary.
My first draft of this post, based on the information request, suggested that the government – by failing to evaluate the level of support for various positions taken during the consultations – was trying to hide the high level of public support for a pesticide ban. However, when I put that question to Bob Lucy, a Pesticide Licence Officer with the Ministry who has been very involved in the consultations, he proved very willing to put together some of the type of analysis I had been looking for, as well as providing an explanation as to why no quantitative analysis has been done.
Mr. Lucy argued that the consultation process had always been intended to produce a qualitative analysis:
We did not design the Consultation Paper to collect statistics; the questions are open-ended and, as the paper says in its introduction, intended to stimulate conversation and gather your input on this topic. Providing a quantitative analysis of opinions received in response to such a paper would not have provided any statistically relevant information. The contractor indicated the relative frequency of the different types of responses received by using language such as “Many respondents …” or “Some respondents …”. Given the wide range of comments received, I think he did an excellent job of giving an accurate summary.
With respect, “some respondents” only tells you that more than 2 expressed a view, and at what point does “some” become “many”?
Mr. Lucy went on to clarify that:
At present there are no plans to do the quantitative analysis you requested. The reasons for this include:
- The consultation process was not designed to be an opinion poll and is not capable of providing statistically valid numbers.
- We were interested in people’s thoughts on how various issues could be addressed. Campaigns both for and against a ban on the use of cosmetic pesticides were directing people to websites where they could submit responses without having the opportunity to review the consultation paper. This meant that a large number of responses did not provide the type of information for which we were looking.
- Of the responses received with answers to our specific consultation questions, answers to individual questions mean more when taken in the context of the entire response. Responses taken in their entirety “tell the story” better than trying to analyse numbers.
I do not disagree that qualitative analysis of the comments received is useful. However, public consultations, while not an opinion poll, are routinely used by government to measure the strength of public opinion on issues. In our view the consultation summary does not give the Minister – or the public – any basis to distinguish between the different perspectives taken.
So who said what?
Fortunately Mr. Lucy was willing to pull together some approximate figures that give us some idea as to who responded to the public consultation and what they said.
Virtually all of the petitions received – primarily from the Canadian Cancer Society – supported a cosmetic pesticide ban, as did approximately 82% of the form letters and emails received (which includes, as I understand it, those received by MLAs or the Ministry of Environment).
Mr. Lucy provided a breakdown of how the more than 800 individuals, corporations or organizations that wrote specific responses to the Ministry’s discussion paper were classified. 58% were identified only as members of the public. Here's a graph showing the breakdown by type of respondent.
Mr. Lucy writes:
Of the 800 individual responses to the consultation questions, I would guess that half were generally in favour of banning the sale and use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes; a quarter favoured some sort of increased regulation without implementing an actual ban and the remaining quarter thought that no changes to pesticide regulation were required. There were many nuances to these responses, however, and it was not always obvious or possible to classify them as wanting a ban or not wanting a ban.
So, based on Mr. Lucy’s approximation, of the more than 800 people who took the time to specifically write a response to the Discussion Paper, approximately 75% wanted some form of increased regulation of cosmetic pesticides, and about 50% wanted a ban. However, when all responses are taken into account, approximately 88% of respondents (or 9912) favoured a pesticide ban. Only 11% (or 1206) didn’t want any changes to the law, and a further 2% favoured increased regulation, but not an outright ban. (Note to anyone trying to compare these figures to the 8000 comments described above: Mr. Lucy’s figures include responses received after the February 15th consultation deadline, so a direct comparison is not possible based on the available information).
These numbers were not in the written material communicated to Minister Barry Penner to assist him in making decisions on whether and how to regulate cosmetic pesticides. Mr. Lucy was unable to tell me whether some of this information was passed on to the Minister in oral briefings, although he did assure me that the Minister was aware of the high levels of public support for a pesticide ban from past polling, such as the 2008 poll by the Canadian Cancer Society that confirmed that 76% of respondents favour a cosmetic pesticide ban.
Numbers aren’t everything, of course. But surely it means something that the Ministry of Environment was blown away by the level of public engagement in this consultation, and that overwhelmingly the respondents were telling the government to ban cosmetic pesticides.
The people have spoken. Will the government listen?