Liberal reform of StatsCan checks all the right boxes

Posted on January 8, 2018 in Governance Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials
January 8, 2018.   Globe Editorial

Even minor government reforms tend to be accompanied by some fanfare, but Bill C-36, a consequential piece of legislation, passed into law essentially unnoticed in December.

The government bill most notably amended the Statistics Act to remove the threat of a jail sentence for people who refuse to fill out the twice-a-decade national census, reducing the maximum sanction to a $500 fine.

It’s a welcome change. Filling out the census should be compulsory – good government policy depends on reliable, wide-ranging data – but brandishing the threat of incarceration went too far, even if it was entirely theoretical (no one has ever gone to jail in Canada for refusing to fill out a census form).

As the 98.4-per-cent response rate to the 2016 census showed, Canadians are eager to participate in the number-gathering exercise. The former Conservative government’s argument that the census is an outrageous invasion of privacy, an argument it used to briefly kill the long-form version, was a fatuous one. The Liberal government was right to bring back the mandatory long-form census in 2015.

The Liberal’s latest reform also establishes the Canadian Statistics Advisory Council, which will issue an annual report on the state of the national statistics system, and spells out the role of the Chief Statistician of Canada in greater detail.

The agency’s head now has the specific power to “decide, based strictly on professional statistical standards that he or she considers appropriate, the methods and procedures for carrying out statistical programs.”

Whereas previous Chief Statisticians were appointed to serve at the pleasure of the government, he or she will now be named to a maximum of two five-year terms, and can only be removed for cause.

StatsCan has seen considerable upheaval since 2010 – two Chief Statisticians have resigned in protest of what boiled down to attacks on the agency’s independence.

These amendments are a welcome reinforcement of the importance to a well-run democracy of accurate data provided by an independent source.

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