Day, Clement expose Harper’s kingdom [census decision]
Published On Thu Aug 12 2010. Haroon Siddiqui Editorial Page
Stockwell Day and Tony Clement have done more in a month than Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has in years, especially under the hapless Michael Ignatieff. The two have exposed the long-suspected ideological underpinnings of the Conservative government, and lifted the veil on the inner workings of the court in the kingdom of Stephen Harper.
“That’s what the boss wanted,” Clement is telling friends about the Prime Minister killing the compulsory long census form, which a fifth of households get once every five years. The minister in charge of Statistics Canada says he opposed the change, to no avail.
He could have resigned. But he chose to ride his limo.
He has since been bombarded by the provinces, municipalities, universities, hospitals, businesses and more than 200 groups, including churches. They all use the data from the long census form to decide on a plethora of services — schools to senior citizens homes, public health to public transit, highways to housing, baby care to banking.
They told him that a voluntary census is no substitute for a compulsory one; that it would provide data of questionable quality at a higher cost ($30 million); and that it would be useless for purposes of comparison to the treasure trove of past economic, demographic and social trends gathered over the last 40 years.
He wouldn’t budge. He’d only repeat the mantra that nobody should go to jail for refusing to fill out the long census form (though nobody ever did, and the government could easily remove the jail term — which he finally said yesterday he would. His flip-flop, however, did little to address the real issue: the downgrading of the long form).
For his part, Day said, with typical hyperbole, that asking citizens to do their duty by the long census form — spending an hour once every 25 years — was worse than what PoWs are subjected to: “Even prisoners of war only have to give their name, rank and serial number.”
That the ministers were only following orders was confirmed Monday when Harper broke weeks of silence: “I know some Canadians will have some reluctance to provide that (information to census) and I know some people think the appropriate way to deal with that is through prosecuting those individuals with fines and jail terms. This government will not do that.”
He was not going to back down.
This may be a matter of ideological faith for him. It may be as ideological or bone-headed or a signature issue as the plan to waste $9 billion building jails when the crime rate is going down.
Or he is stubborn. Or authoritarian, a bully who brooks no dissent. Or he believes that backing away, even in the face of a trans-Canada revolt, is a sign of weakness or would be seen as such (though thinking so may be the surest sign of a frightened and insecure man).
Regardless, he may have put Canada in violation of a United Nations convention. We are a signatory to the UN Statistical Commission’s 1994 Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.
The first principle describes official statistics as “an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society.” Such data should be “made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honour citizens’ entitlement to public information.”
Harper has violated the letter and certainly the spirit of the second, third, fourth and fifth principles:
• Official statistics-gathering agencies should be run independently “according to strictly professional considerations . . . for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.”
• They should apply “scientific standards on the sources, methods and procedures of the statistics.”
• They should be free “to comment on erroneous interpretation and misuse of statistics.”
• They should be free to “choose the source with regard to quality, timeliness, costs and the burden on respondents.”
Harper imposed a political decision on StatsCan and also muzzled its freedom to speak out. About 200 pages of internal memos released Tuesday revealed how the Prime Minister abused the Privy Council Office to dictate what agency officials could say on the issue.
Clement has argued that the agency is not independent but answerable to the minister in charge.
“Yes, we work under the minister but, as per a long tradition, not in terms of choosing what an appropriate scientific method is,” Ivan Fellegi, the highly respected former chief statistician (1985-2008), told me Tuesday.
His successor, Munir Sheikh, resigned in protest, in particular over Clement’s lies that he had the chief statistician’s backing when he didn’t. Sheikh has since also said that the government is destroying the credibility of StatsCan.
As tragic as all this is, it has been very instructive.
Citizens rose up against an arbitrary and stupid decision. They mocked Day for justifying more jails for phantom criminals from unreported crimes. They saw Harper in a way they’ve never seen him before.
The twin scandals also laid bare the vacuity of the Liberals. Ignatieff, doing the summer barbecue circuit, couldn’t move off his daily script to seize the golden moments and present a credible alternative to a discredited government.
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