Close the bedroom door for privacy

NationalPost.com – Opinion
Tuesday, Jul. 27, 2010.   Scott Stinson, National Post

Brace yourselves, people, for I am about to divulge something highly personal: my home has four bedrooms. Four. There, I said it.

You may feel as though you don’t know me any better than you did just a paragraph ago, but trust me when I tell you that you are now privy to some juicy information. That must be the case, since just about every defence of the federal government’s decision to turn the mandatory long-form census into a voluntary one has included some reference to how many Canadians are concerned about the intrusiveness of questions like the one about the number of bedrooms in one’s home.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has used the bedroom question over and over in saying that we should not be forced to give such secrets to agents of the government. Conservative MP Maxime Bernier has repurposed the famous Trudeau line in declaring that “the state does not belong in the bedrooms of Canadians.”

But, is “How many of these rooms [in your dwelling] are bedrooms” really such a scandalous intrusion? It’s not like the question is “What kind of stuff do you get up to in your bedroom, YOU PERVERT?”

That the bedroom question has sucked up so much of the oxygen surrounding the still-burbling debate about the census changes says a lot about the willingness of both the government and its critics to make this controversy one that is ideological in nature. On the one side are the Tories, defenders of personal freedoms. On the other side are the Liberals and NDP, defenders of the public service and of big government in general. Stuck in the middle are all the many parties who don’t seem to care much about libertariansim or interventionism or whatever otherism but who just want the damn census to be accurate.

It’s hard to have a lot of confidence about that last part. First the government said that the change from mandatory to voluntary would not harm accuracy because the sample size would be larger. After a number of learned folks argued that a larger sample would not overcome problems created by the lack of statistical randomness, the government said that it was still confident with the new plan because Statistics Canada said it would be fine. After StatsCan, via former employees and one suddenly former president, confirmed that the agency would much rather have stuck with the mandatory version, the government line has now become that it expects most Canadians will do their duty and fill out the voluntary form anyway. In the Great Census Battle of 2010, the Conservatives have not exactly mounted a co-ordinated defence.

Are there reasons to abandon the census entirely, as some other advanced countries have done? Are there problems with relying on a once-every-five-years random sampling as the basis for government decision-making? Are there other means of gathering census-type information that could be more accurate than the now-sacrosanct mandatory long form? Yes, yes and yes, but the problem with advocating those arguments is that the government didn’t entertain them, at least not publicly. It didn’t decide to replace the census with something else, nor did it decide to leave information-gathering to the provinces or the private sector. It just made the census voluntary, and thus less reliable. And it cited privacy concerns as its chief motivation, despite an utter lack of evidence that Canadians felt besieged by the jackbooted Census Police. Just ask the privacy commissioner, who received one fewer complaint on the issue than I have bedrooms.

Given the lack of logic in the government’s position, it’s understandable that critics suggest something else must be up. It is part of Stephen Harper’s innate distrust of the bureaucracy, they say. Or it’s part of his fundamental libertarian DNA. Or he once had a census taker steal his lunch money and push him over so he skinned his knee. Those arguments (at least the first two) would be more plausible in this case if there were other examples of the way in which the Prime Minister has pushed his anti-bureaucracy, pro-libertarian agenda in his four years in power. Or any examples, really.

Most likely he was throwing a bone to a chunk of his voter base, not realizing what wrath he had wrought. When the critics arrived, a government not prone to compromise dug in its heels. So here we are, a nation full of unhappy statisticians under a government willing to defend your right to keep your number of bedrooms private. Unless you decide to sell your house, in which case everyone will know the answer anyway.

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