Canada’s globally admired statisticians undercut
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Auditor general’s report provides a first look at the damage the Harper government has done by hacking Statistics Canada.
May 19 2014. By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist
For the past year, Canadians have laboured under the misapprehension that thousands of jobs go begging because no one in this country has the skills to fill them. It turned out the government was using faulty online data.
For two years, people struggled to figure out how Ottawa could close prisons while ordering judges to impose more jail sentences. The auditor general solved that riddle last week: it couldn’t. Canada’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded. “There is no link between the rate of violence and double-bunking,” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney now says.
For eight years, the government has been cracking down on lawlessness, despite a steady drop in the crime rate. Former cabinet minister Stockwell Day insisted “unreported crime” was rising.
Through three federal elections, Stephen Harper has campaigned as the prime minister who brought fiscal discipline to the nation’s capital. In fact, federal spending ballooned on his watch. He burned his way through the $13-billion surplus left by the previous government, leaving no rainy-day fund when the 2008 recession hit. That meant he had to run the largest deficit in Canadian history. Only since 2012 have the Tories practised government-wide restraint.
Two things are noteworthy about this pattern of disinformation.
One is that it has lasted so long. Until recently there was no systematic questioning of the “facts” dispensed by Harper and his associates.
The other is that it is locked in. The Tories have downsized Statistics Canada, the country’s chief information gathering agency, so severely that future governments will have to rely on blunt — and sometimes unreliable — tools to monitor socio-economic developments.
Half of the agency’s workforce is gone. Hundreds of its programs have been dropped. The mandatory long-form census has given way to a voluntary household survey. It would cost tens of millions of dollars to reverse these changes — and any government that tried would face resistance from taxpayers conditioned to regard number-crunchers as a needless public expense.
Auditor general Michael Ferguson’s 2014 annual report offers a first glimpse of the toll that Harper’s hacking has taken.
- His most troubling finding is that StatsCan’s job vacancy survey is vague and unreliable. “It is not possible to determine where in a province or territory job vacancies are located,” he said. Nor is the survey specific about which occupations have openings. “Professional, scientific and technical services could include jobs in advertising, legal services, architecture and biotechnology research.”
A senior official of StatsCan acknowledged these shortcomings, but said it would cost $5 million to fix them — money the agency doesn’t have.
- The auditor offers a preliminary look at the consequences of cancelling thecensus.
In 2011, the government introduced a voluntary household survey, replacing StatsCan’s detailed mandatory enumeration of the Canadian population. The response rate dropped to 69 per cent from 94 per cent in 2006.
In parts of the country, so few households filled out the questionnaire that StatsCan could not produce reliable data. So it withheld the results in those areas, leaving municipalities, school boards, urban planners, developers, businesses and social agencies in 25 per cent of Canada without up-to-date information.
StatsCan is aware of the problem, but has neither the mandate nor the money to develop a more accurate way of providing decision-makers with the information they need.
- The third change Ferguson flagged was that StatsCan is shrinking from a public information agency into an in-house research bureau for the government. It has curtailed its consultations with entrepreneurs, academics and non-government organizations. It has narrowed its focus. “We found the agency primarily consults with the federal, provincial and territorial governments” the auditor said. “In order to ensure the continued relevance of its data, Statistics Canada should obtain, document and analyze ongoing feedback from the full range of its users.”
StatsCan disconsolately agreed and said it would broaden its future consultations.
What emerged was a picture of a highly professional agency forced to cut corners and lower its standards.
It will take more than a gentle wake-up call from the auditor general to halt the hollowing out of Statistics Canada. Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcairand Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau need to speak out now. Otherwise, they’ll have to steer the nation by guesswork and Google Trends
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