Tories: Tea Party North

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Fri Jul 23 2010

The blockbuster resignation this week of career civil servant Munir Sheikh as head of Statistics Canada has finally given the Conservatives the wedge issue they wanted: Is StatsCan right to require that citizens and residents cooperate with a national census that for decades has sought detailed information from the one in five households issued a “long-form” questionnaire?

That’s how the Conservatives are framing this debate. Industry Minister Tony Clement argues that Canadians should never be “coerced” into disclosing personal information and income to the government, as this violates their privacy rights. Clement is backed in his Tea Party North crusade by Maxime Bernier, the one-time Conservative foreign minister who worries about confidentiality but was forced to resign after leaving behind a confidential brief when he overnighted with a girlfriend tied to biker gangs.

Will they now argue that the Canada Revenue Agency has no business coercing taxpayers to fully disclose their income, assets, liabilities and marital status on their annual returns — merely because they take a long time to fill out and leave Canadians cursing every April? Will they demand that Statistics Canada discontinue the monthly Labour Force Survey, which saddles more than 50,000 Canadians with detailed questions about employment, income and marital status? Will the mandatory agricultural survey be next, so that farmers will no longer be hounded by impertinent StatsCan queries about how much manure is used as fertilizer?

The Conservatives claim that Canadians are rebelling against the census en masse. But the privacy commissioner has received only a handful of complaints over the years. By contrast, the census has long helped decision-makers in Ottawa, the provinces and the municipalities, in businesses and charities. That’s why this move is being opposed by groups of all political stripes, who argue persuasively that it will do huge damage to the national database.

That the Conservatives persist in crass appeals to their bedrock anti-government constituency, while making a virtue of ignoring expert advice, may yet backfire on them. Sheikh’s principled resignation from StatsCan has shed light on Clement’s intellectual dishonesty and outright falsehoods.

Clement claims a valid alternative to the mandatory long-form is a planned “voluntary” survey that will cost taxpayers an additional $30 million while grievously degrading the quality of the results. Statisticians are unanimous in warning that people at high- and low- income extremes will be disinclined to respond.

Yet, as with the gun registry — which was massively supported by police chiefs across the country — the Conservative government is going its own way, for its own reasons. By ignoring expert opinion, it has created a crisis of confidence and a crisis of competence. Like the controversy over prorogation of Parliament, which many thought was merely an “elite” issue, the Conservatives may yet find that by insulting the intelligence of Canadians, they do themselves harm.

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