Stats crash at the corner of ideology and reason
TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Opinions – Munir Sheikh had no choice but to resign as head of Statistics Canada
Published Friday, July 23, 2010. Jeffrey Simpson, Vancouver
What Canadians are witnessing in the census saga is the temporary triumph of ideology over reason.
Through the collective voices of their civic, religious and political institutions, Canadians apparently understand the threat – which is why they’ve rallied so strongly against the Harper government’s decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census. Whether they’ll defeat ideology at the next election remains to be seen.
The Statistics Canada fight is not the usual clash of competing political visions, of left against right, of Conservatives against progressives. Rather, this is a fight about rational decision-making that requires the best fact-based evidence available against a reliance on ideological nostrums that scorn facts and reason when they stand in the way of those nostrums.
It’s a fight, in essence, for an old, often tattered but still powerful dream: that the best information will lead to the best informed decisions, that decisions will flow from facts, rather than facts fitted to justify decisions.
Munir Sheikh had no choice but to resign as head of Statistics Canada. His predecessor, Ivan Fellegi, had said as much, but, more important, was that Mr. Sheikh represented a fact-gathering agency whose essential mission was being compromised by ideology. Worse, the integrity of that institution – and, by extension, his own – was being sullied by a series of misrepresentations put about by a minister who, were he possessed of an ounce of honour, would have submitted his own resignation. But then honour has all but disappeared in the hyper-partisanship of federal politics, the crude attacks that now characterize so much of public debate, and the intense desire to hold high office at all costs of those for whom being in politics has become a lifelong obsession.
Industry Minister Tony Clement, to whom Statistics Canada ultimately reports, has been dancing a disgraceful jig to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tune. Make no mistake: This entire affair was provoked by Mr. Harper, the man who makes all the important decisions and many of the lesser ones.
Mr. Clement resorted to inventing explanations for scrapping the mandatory long-form census that contributes to the accuracy of national data. When these failed for demonstrable lack of evidence, he and the spinmeisters in the Prime Minister’s Office tried to make this into a partisan affair. When that failed, they began to infer that Statistics Canada itself, and Mr. Sheikh in particular, were at one with the government’s ideological decision.
It was this gross misstatement of fact that finally provoked Mr. Sheikh’s resignation. It was simply wrong for Mr. Clement to state that, in offering options about how to run a voluntary long-form survey, the agency and Mr. Sheikh agreed that these options were the best on offer, or that they could achieve the same results as a mandatory one.
There isn’t a statistician in Canada who accepts Mr. Clement’s assertion about voluntary equalling mandatory, because, after all, they’re trained in reason, not the narrow exigencies of partisan politics, whereby a Conservative Prime Minister, himself a deeply ideological person, seized on this issue to stir up the party’s right-wing core.
Mr. Sheikh, a protégé of Kevin Lynch, Mr. Harper’s former clerk of the Privy Council, and a career public servant, would have been trained in the art of bureaucratic discretion and, where appropriate, in bowing to political masters.
Deputy ministers, after all, sometimes disagree with the government they serve, and try to convince ministers they’re wrong. But, in the end, they must yield to ministers under our system of government, unless, of course, they’re being asked to do something unconscionable or unethical or, as in this case, their motives and positions are being publicly misrepresented.
Mr. Sheikh knew that Statistics Canada does not, as the PMO suggested, knock on people’s doors at 10 p.m. to interview them. The agency, and others who monitor the census, have heard very few complaints about the “invasion of privacy,” a justification concocted by Mr. Clement. Those who worked there presumably wished, as professionals, to serve the public interest, assuming that the best available statistical profile of Canada might lead to advancing that interest. What they didn’t understand was that they’d become the targets of an assault by ideology against reason.
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