Bias triumphs in census row

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Wed Jul 28 2010

The ongoing debate in Ottawa over the mandatory long-form census is pitting prejudice against reason.

Or, as NDP MP Charlie Angus put it during committee hearings on the subject Tuesday: “We expect that the industry minister (will) make his decision on fact and not on urban myth or what you hear on talk radio.”

Industry Minister Tony Clement told the committee that the government decided to scrap the mandatory long-form census and replace it with a voluntary survey because Canadians found it “intrusive.” But he offered only anecdotal evidence to support this claim. When pressed by Angus for something more than anecdotes, Clement replied: “We did it on a principled basis.” Translation: the decision was based on gut feelings.

Clement also said the government was seeking “a better balance between collecting the necessary data and protecting the privacy of Canadians.” But again he offered no evidence that the China wall protecting census data from prying eyes has ever been breached.

Finally, Clement referred repeatedly to the mandatory census being enforced with “the threat of jail.” In fact, while a six-month jail term is included in the Statistics Act, no one has ever been incarcerated for refusing to fill out a census form. Former chief statistician Ivan Fellegi made that clear to the committee. But undeterred, Conservative MPs on the committee kept on making references to jail terms.

In an effort to bridge this gap, the National Statistics Council, a government-appointed advisory body, has put forward a compromise: keep the long-form mandatory, but modify it by deleting the question about unpaid household work (which some find objectionable) and drop the notional threat of a jail term for non-compliance.

But Clement left the strong impression that the government is uninterested in such a compromise. The Conservatives have made their decision and the experts be damned.

On one side in this debate is a remarkable coalition of interests: provinces, municipalities, banks, unions, churches, universities, social agencies, francophone groups, native associations and others that find census information invaluable to their decision-making processes. They fear that a voluntary survey will be far less reliable because it is less likely to be filled out by rich and poor Canadians, immigrants and Aboriginal peoples.

On the other side is blind prejudice about “intrusive government.”

In Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, the latter usually wins.

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