Bad policy, brilliant politics [census]

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Thu Aug 05 2010.   Clive Doucet, OTTAWA
The storm over the Statistics Canada long census form confirms two things: Stephen Harper is a brilliant partisan politician and he doesn’t like cities.

He can’t because the census long form makes good conservative sense.

The sunk costs of the national survey are already there, making the long form a trivial additional cost and the information gathered is essential to voluntary, not-for-profit and neighborhood scale organizations which also makes good conservative sense — as in smaller is better. National averages don’t mean much to a city councillor, we want to know what’s going on at the neighbourhood and street level. The long census form allows us get that information.

Let me give just one example. With the long census, we are able to determine that nearly half of all children in our Bayshore community are poorly prepared to enter kindergarten, twice as many as children in the communities of Centrepoint and Ottawa South and more than half again as many as the city average.

There are dozens of other ways the StatsCan long form helps us to target municipal services wisely, which is essential because municipalities receive only 8 cents on every tax dollar. So why can’t we keep it?

We can’t because these are all politically insignificant details for Harper. The populations of Canada’s old cities don’t vote for him and he’s not responsible for education or cities. They are both provincial responsibilities. Further, his core support is concerned about anything that smacks of government imposition and, let’s fact it, the census is an imposition.

Nevertheless, it turned out that Canadians did care enough to keep the issue alive in letters to the editor columns. Solution, change the channel.

Suddenly, the question is no longer should or should not Canada have the census information collected on the long form, the question has become “should Canadians be ‘forced’ to respond to the Statistics Canada census?”

I notice there are now media polls from the great papers to the local asking gravely asking: Do you think responding to Statistics Canada should be voluntary or not? Perfect. The channel has been changed to one that is favorable to Harper. (It works so well, you almost, almost feel sorry for the opposition.)

Harper’s government has done this very successfully on dozens of difficult issues. But I don’t want to change channels. I want residents of Canada to understand that we, their locally elected representatives will govern less well without information that is complete and coherent, and it will be without a mandated form — that’s why it is mandated.

Nor has this been a problem for as long as Statistics Canada existed and why should it be? Collecting national statistics has been going on for as long as nations have been nations. Didn’t Joseph and Mary truck off to Bethlehem in response to the census of the day?

Organized society, if you believe such a thing is necessary, actually needs to know the quality of the organization it is trying to organize. It can’t be done by simply believing crime is increasing or decreasing. Curious as it may seem, effective decision-making actually has to be based on knowledge, not belief or best guesses.

I can’t tell you how Canada’s collective security is increased by spending billions on fighter jets. Are Osama Bin Laden, the Russians, the Americans worried about whether or not Canada has a few more jets?

I have no idea, but I can tell you how our collective welfare is advanced by the Statistics Canada long form.

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