Harper’s census push months in the making

Posted on July 26, 2010 in Governance Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – News/politics -Scrapping the mandatory long form stems from libertarian convictions, insiders say
Published on Monday, Jul. 26, 2010.   Michael Valpy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided at the end of December to scrap the mandatory long-form census despite being told by Statistics Canada officials that important data would likely be lost or impaired as a result.

He considered going further by making the whole census voluntary, people familiar with what transpired have revealed. On the long census form, he overrode objections from his own officials in the Privy Council Office and senior finance department staff, although Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said on the weekend that he thinks census data can be collected voluntarily without being compromised.

The government announced at the end of June that the long form would be voluntary in the 2011 census.

Opposition MPs will get their first chance to question Industry Minister Tony Clement, the minister responsible for Statscan, and former chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who has quit in protest against the change, when they appear before a parliamentary panel on Tuesday.

Mr. Harper’s decision has baffled political analysts familiar with his thinking – people including political scientist Tom Flanagan, who played a key role in Mr. Harper becoming prime minister – but not University of Calgary economist Frank Atkins, his graduate thesis supervisor.

While careful to stress he is not putting words in the Prime Minister’s mouth, Prof. Atkins suggested Mr. Harper acted from a deep philosophical conviction – a libertarian view of the mandatory long-form census, which has been in use since 1971, as a Big Brother manifestation of the intrusive state.

Mr. Harper has indicated previously that he has philosophical problems with Statscan.

At a cabinet meeting at least 18 months ago, then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier – who has assumed a lead role in defending the government’s long-form decision – proposed major cuts to Statscan based on ideological libertarianism. The Prime Minister was reported to be supportive (while then-clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch was not).

Said Prof. Atkins: “I would agree with this census decision from a libertarian point of view. People like me look on this as the thin edge of the wedge, sort of ‘Big Brother’s around the corner,’ if you’re forcing people to reveal knowledge even though the knowledge isn’t going to be attached to them.”

That accords with the Prime Minister’s Office statement: “The government made this decision because we do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to disclose extensive private and personal information.”

In fact, there are two faces to the controversy: the compulsory collection of information and the purposes for which the data may be used.

Academics and others have categorized what pollster Allan Gregg last week called “a classic culture war cleavage” as a clash between the role of knowledge, evidence and reason and the role of intuition, “common sense” and “decency.” In this view, the elimination of the mandatory long form is seen by Mr. Harper’s philosophical critics as an expression of the current small-c conservative ideological tendency to value belief and conviction over “data” and rationality.

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning points out that conservatives see a battle as well: against the ideology of “social engineering” in the data-and-rationality camp.

In Harper’s Team, his book on Mr. Harper’s journey to power, Mr. Flanagan wrote that winning elections and controlling the government as much as possible is the most effective way of shifting the public philosophy.

“If you control the government, you choose judges, appoint the senior civil service, fund or de-fund advocacy groups, and do many other things that gradually influence the climate of opinion,” he said.

Writing in the online publication The Mark, University of Ottawa political scientist Paul Saurette said: “This is a remarkable statement. [Mr.] Flanagan is suggesting that … electoral victory is important primarily as a tool in the service of a much greater and longer-term ideological goal: the transformation of the broad public philosophy of Canada and the cultivation of an enduring set of conservative values and philosophical principles in Canadians.

“Once one appreciates that this perspective is quite likely shared by some of the key decision-makers in the current government, the policy shift towards a voluntary long census makes a lot more sense.”

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