Long-form census? Nah, we’ll ask Paul the octopus

TheglobeandMail.com – Politics – The Conservatives are feeding public paranoia instead of reassuring people the system is secure
Published on Friday, Jul. 16, 2010.    Tabatha Southey

One almost has to admire the Conservatives for fighting so hard for that elusive too-lazy-to-mark-an-X vote.

And, in standing by their position that the long form of the census will no longer be mandatory, the Conservatives have also opened up a debate with statisticians, something the more fragile of us would avoid.

But there the Conservatives were, again, this week, tilting at windmills, insisting, as Industry Minister Tony Clement explained it, that they can compensate for the fact that certain demographic groups are likely to forego completing the long-form census because “statisticians can ensure validity” with a “larger sample size.”

I’m pretty certain that the average Grade 10 student can explain why this isn’t the case. Simply put, no matter how broad a sample size statisticians use, the fact that some groups are likely to be underrepresented will mean that the database will be faulty: No matter how many thousands of dog owners you survey, you won’t find out how many of the cat owners in Nova Scotia are likely to require knee-replacement surgery.

And while the argument’s been made that people forced to fill in a census may lie and skew the data, one wonders what other laws we’ll now discard because we cannot ensure 100 per cent voluntary compliance.

We have a prime minister who insists that we cannot have a serious discussion about decriminalizing marijuana, because he can “predict with a lot of confidence” that marijuana will never be produced and sold by “respectable businesses run by respectable people.” And so, based apparently on the psychic powers of our leader, we continue at enormous public expense to make criminals out of many Canadians, most of whom wouldn’t dream of breaking any other laws. Case closed.

And yet cabinet minister John Baird reserves an almost profound compassion for citizens who don’t want to tell “how many bathrooms they have” – a disclosure we’re required to make for property-tax purposes (without anonymity), but not in fact on the census long form. The Conservative logic at the moment is that it’s better to disable an exemplary system rather than to risk penalizing a small number of people for not answering imaginary questions.

One doesn’t want to use “state coercion,” says Mr. Clement, speaking for our tough-on-crime government. But the census system relies on everyone being willing to make the occasional small, anonymous sacrifice. Statistically each Canadian will be asked to fill out the form only once every 25 years.

Surely if there’s a place for a little “coercion,” in the direct service of peace, order and good government, it’s there?

Step up, people. It’s not conscription. And while it’s tempting to see what changes in public policy the potential statistical disappearance of the bone-idle and the conspiracy-theory junkies might bring about (fewer escalators? Cuts in our top-secret UFO-monitoring budget?) it’s likely best not to.

It’s odd that just when so many of us have begun disclosing so much to so many, an anti-census movement has gained traction (it’s big with America’s Tea Party crowd). One possible solution is that we pass a law saying all Canadians have to Facebook-friend the new Governor-General. I assure you, the government will be begging you all for less information in no time.

Many people happily divulge large amounts of information on the comments card at a chain restaurant, and provide their phone numbers; they give intimate details to dating sites. Why, I bought hair conditioner the other day and the cashier asked for all of my contact information – I’m not sure what’s going on there. Perhaps they’re expecting some sort of giant hair-conditioner recall. Maybe Prime Minster Kreskin has some idea about this.

However the point is that while the census isn’t a new idea – that’s why Mary and Joseph were on their way to Bethlehem – and there are far less secure places for personal information to pool (in fact, Canada’s privacy watchdog has received only three complaints about the census in the last decade), anti-census sentiment has grown because it’s bred of anti-government sentiment.

By caving to the anti-census fringe and validating their paranoia, the Conservatives are feeding public cynicism and mistrust instead of reassuring people that the system is secure.

When Mr. Baird defended the changes to the census against the onslaught of criticism it has wrought (the list of diverse groups that are protesting this change could fill my entire column) by saying, “We will respect people’s right to privacy,” he likely created more non-filers by disregarding the fact that census doesn’t violate individual privacy. It’s between you and your pencil.

He undermined confidence in government, in all corners, to no one’s benefit.

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