Friday, July 30, 2010

Harper’s self-destructive census bungle

Maybe Stephen Harper, in his heart, has mixed feelings about being in power.
Perhaps he fears it means he has sold out.
That’s one explanation for the Conservative government’s bizarre decision to turn the census into some sort of do-or-die issue.
The census hasn’t been top of mind for most Canadians. Or even bottom of mind, really.
But it’s a big deal for researchers and governments and businesses and policy advocates. Every five years, Canadians fill out census forms. The data is rolled up into a portrait of the country and how it’s changing.
Provincial governments and municipalities use it to assess programs and future needs; business groups monitor the state of the economy and the challenges ahead; school boards plan for future needs; researchers try to figure out what is changing - and why - in the lives of Canadians.
The Conservatives, for no compelling reason, want to make the data less reliable, the census less useful and comparisons with previous years difficult.
Most Canadians fill out a short census form every five years. Twenty per cent of us get the mandatory long census form, which asks more questions. That sample, randomly selected, provides Statistics Canada with reliable date.
The Conservatives, with no consultation or warning, are making the long form voluntary.
That’s a mistake, according to virtually every statistician, researcher and census user.
The decision means the census sample is no longer random. Single moms working two jobs might not fill out the forms; retired people might be happy to take the time. Natives living in remote reserves and hard-charging business executives might not get around to the census.
The portrait of a nation is skewed. Which means decisions made on the basis of the information is also unreliable.
So why would the Conservatives risk wrecking the census with a decision that is being denounced as wrongheaded by almost everyone involved?
Three answers make sense.
Harper could genuinely believe that the benefits of an accurate census aren’t enough to make it mandatory for Canadians to fill out the long form.
Or the Conservatives could be trying to please the portion of their base that sees government as the enemy and the requirement to fill out the census form as Big Brother run wild.
Or they figured the census wasn’t likely to attract attention and didn’t anticipate just how widespread and credible the opposition would be.
Whatever happened, it’s turned into a big problem.
I expect the Conservative strategists were right about the census as an issue.
But this isn’t about the census anymore.
The government stands accused - by everyone from the Conference Board of Canada to the province of Ontario to big unions - of making a bad decision.
The National Statistics Council - appointed by the government to advise Statistics Canada - wants the mandatory forum used in 2011 and proposes an overall review of the census before the next survey in five yhears. (The council includes former TD Bank vice-president Don Drummond, born and raised in Victoria. He found it shocking that the decision was made without consulting the council.)
And it has been dishonest. Cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office have claimed that Canadians were up in arms about the census. But Statistics Canada said it sent out 12 million forms in 2006 and had only 166 complaints about all aspects of the census.
They talked about the threat of jail and bureaucrats knocking on people’s doors in the night to demand answers.
But no one has ever been jailed for not completing the census form. And no one has faced a late-night call from the man.
Most seriously, Industry Minister Tony Clement said StatsCan supported the change. The agency’s head, Munir Sheikh, said that was not true and resigned as a matter of integrity. Who should you believe - the career government employee who resigned in protest, or the glib minister?
The changes to the census were a mistake. The Conservatives’ arrogance and dishonesty in refusing to acknowledge that are doing much more damage.
Footnote: An Ottawa Citizen editorial suggested another motive. “Ideologues don’t just ignore research,” the editorial argued. “They actually abhor it, because it gets in their way. If you approach the problem of drug addiction from an ideological point of view, then you have nothing but contempt for medical researchers who can show that safe injection sites reduce the harm of illegal drugs… This contempt for empirical research is not the Canadian way, but it has become the Conservative way.”


Anonymous said...

What's more disgusting is the way this announcement was made: a 'tweet' by incompetent minister. No press release, no reports supporting the decision - just a tweet stating "that government decisions do not need to be shouted from the rooftops." This from the same minister who thinks the nation needs a press release of him meeting the pope! (

Anonymous said...

So Harper's harpies cannot give any credible examples of census information being wrongly used or abused.

Today we learned that a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) employee accessed "the private tax files of hundreds of high-income individuals" but the CRA "confirmed this week that it has no plans to notify the taxpayers involved that their personal information was improperly accessed".

If the Harperites were consistent they would make all income reporting and tax paying voluntary as to do otherwise would be too 'intrusive' into the privacy of Canadians.


The Ottawa Citizen editorial is correct; Facts get in the way of ideological truthiness.

Anonymous said...

The Liberals say newly released documents prove the Conservative government lied to Canadians about controversial changes to the census.

Liberal MP Bob Rae says that when Industry Minister Tony Clement announced plans to make the long-form census voluntary, he claimed Statistics Canada said the new system could work.

But Rae says government documents released Tuesday show that's not true.


Tony Clement’s office knew Statistics Canada felt a voluntary census would fall short of the mark even as the Industry Minster defended scrapping the mandatory long form by suggesting the agency had embraced the change, newly released documents show.

In a March of 2010 e-mail to Mr. Clement’s office, a senior Statscan official advised that a self-administered voluntary survey would yield an initial response rate of only 50 per cent.


Information must be the bedrock on which we build public policy in areas that matter to Canadians. Trying to get a snapshot of our country with inaccurate and unreliable data is like using a camera without enough pixels. The blurrier the picture gets, the harder it becomes to recognize the face of our nation.

Jan Courtney said...

Paul, your column says there are 3 reasons that might explain Harper's decision to scrap the long-form census.

But, your third reason isn't a reason:

Or they figured the census wasn't likely to attract attention and didn't anticipate just how widespread and credible the opposition would be.

OK, so they thought they could get away with it. But WHY did they want to do this in the first place? This does not explain the reason they wanted to scrap the long-form census, it only speaks to their sneaky nature.

I think you – and most of the media – have missed the real reason behind this out-of-left-field move by Harper.

I'm trained in statistical analysis. And, I've managed political campaigns for various parties at the provincial and municipal levels in another province, but not at the national level.

Here's why I believe Harper wants to scrap the long-form census and replace it with a voluntary one.

If there is no credible, reliable data, the governing party can and will be able to implement any changes they wish, comfortable in the knowledge that no one will likely be able to provide data of their own to refute them. Few organizations could afford to gather such comprehensive data.

Look at what happened with Stockwell Day just a week or so ago when he tried to claim that unreported crime was increasing and therefore we needed to spend 9 billion dollars on jails. Statistics Canada data showed him to be dead wrong. He became a laughing-stock, and his justification for $9 billion in more prisons died (or at least we should all hope it died).

So, that’s precisely why Harper doesn’t want reliable, unbiased data from a respected agency like Statistics Canada. Harper wants to destroy our country's priceless knowledge base, and replace it with one molded in his preferred ideology.

The Conservative Party under Harper has built, thanks to huge corporate donations, the most sophisticated database on Canadians, and it knows how to skew polling surveys to conform to the outcome they desire.

I've worked for and voted for many parties, including the Conservatives. This is beyond politics; what Canada is heading into with Harper is tyranny of a fascist nature.