The Conservatives’ stand on census is an eye-opener

montrealgazette.com – technology – Despite reason and science, Harper refuses to budge
July 30, 2010.   By Josee Legault, The Gazette

Watching the Conservative government defend its decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary one must have been an eye-opening experience for many Canadians.

After all, it’s not every day that a government dismisses in such a repetitive manner every reasonable and science-based argument by reputable statisticians and academics of all stripes and from all regions.

That includes Munir Sheikh, Statistics Canada’s now former chief statistician who resigned last week. He later testified at a parliamentary committee that a voluntary survey would produce biased data and a much lower response rate. The quality of the data could no longer be guaranteed, he said.

Some provincial governments, including Jean Charest’s, have also protested. Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand wrote to Tony Clement, minister responsible, saying it “risks depriving Quebec of an important source of information for the development, monitoring, and evaluation of public policy, whether it be in social or economic areas.”

So basically, the consensus is that StatsCan could no longer do the job that earned it its impeccable reputation around the world: producing a scientifically reliable portrait of the demographic, linguistic, sociological and economic evolution of Canada while protecting the confidentiality of the respondents better than most similar organizations.

And it did so without throwing a single Canadian into jail for not answering, despite what the government says one day could happen.

Clement actually warned: “For some Canadians who may be new Canadians, who have escaped from hideous regimes, they see this as a very real threat.” Asked by the committee what he thought of the remark, Ivan Fellegi, previous StatsCan chief statistician who left Hungary because it was a totalitarian regime, replied: “Of course, it’s not founded. Unambiguously not founded.”

Hearing the government’s mantra that the long-form census questions are too “intrusive” and that there are too many of them, Canadians witnessed the triumph of ultraconservative ideology over science and reason.

In fact, it sounded a bit like that famous scene in the film Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II says to Mozart: “It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” To which Mozart replied: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

That triumph of ideology seems to indicate that Harper has all but given up on his hope to win a majority in the next election. That’s why he chooses to pander more and more to the Tory base in the hope it will keep him in power, even with another minority government.

Faced with such rigidity, some of the many opposed to this decision are trying to assuage the government with offers to talk about compromises.

In this, the government has mastered the art of getting the country to discuss solutions to problems that don’t really exist.

Yesterday, NDP leader Jack Layton offered to compromise. Some premiers, including Quebec’s and Ontario’s, plan to do the same next week at their annual meeting. Suggestions include taking out some questions or scrapping the possible jail penalty for refusing to answer, even though jail time has never been imposed.

But since no compromise seems possible on the crux of the matter -keeping the long-form census mandatory for statistical reasons -what real chance is there that any Pollyannaish compromise talk would make the government change its mind and give back to Canadians the only way to get a reliable portrait of the country?

Last January in the National Post, Ned Franks of Queen’s University criticized Harper for wielding such enormous executive power when he prorogued Parliament for political reasons. Franks concluded that “we should call him King Stephen the First of Canada, for that, in effect, is the way he is behaving.”

If the government doesn’t retreat on the census -as it should for the sake of reason and science -more might be tempted to borrow that regal label. Not too far from Mozart’s emperor, when you think about it.

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