Johnny - posted on 07/19/2010 ( 2 moms have responded )
When governments want to sneak something by you, they slip the announcement in late Friday, hoping the media won’t notice. Or they print it in the Canada Gazette Saturday, especially during summer weekends.
The Stephen Harper government did the latter on Saturday, June 26 (during the G20 meeting in Toronto), conveying its decision to change the national census.
As if to rub salt in the wound, Tony Clement, the minister in charge of Statistics Canada, said: “I don’t accept that every time you make a change on every matter of government business, you have to shout it from every rooftop.”
The quinquennial census (every five years) consists of a short form sent to 80 per cent of households and a longer one that the remaining fifth must answer.
The first provides the population estimates Ottawa uses to allocate $60 billion in transfer payments to the provinces and territories.
The second helps build a national portrait, down to the neighbourhood level. The only data of its kind, it’s widely used by businesses, governments, hospitals and such agencies as the United Way to provide products and services — from daycare, schools and public transit to retail outlets and seniors care.
However, starting with the next census, due in May 2011, the Tories have decided that the longer form would no longer be compulsory.
This has upset a whole lot of people, with good reason. A voluntary survey is not a census. Its data would be skewed, some groups having responded and others not, like the super-rich at one end and the very poor on the other.
The problem won’t be solved by boosting the sample to 30 per cent, as the Tories are proposing (at an additional cost of $30 million).
“You do not compensate for selective non-response by increasing the sample at random,” Ivan Fellegi, former head of StatsCan and an internationally recognized census expert, told me Tuesday. “You do not correct for the non-responding new immigrants or aboriginals by increasing the sample of middle-class third generation Canadians.”
Worse, the results from the voluntary survey could not be overlaid on existing data, dating back decades. Even if a future government were to restore the survey, “the breaking of the chain of information in 2011 could not be repaired.” says Harvey Low of the social development department at Toronto City Hall.
The storehouse of existing analyses “will potentially be rendered useless,” said Fellegi.
Don Drummond, former chief economist of the TD Bank and a member of the National Statistical Council, which acts in a consultative capacity for StatsCan, said the planned changes to the 2011 census would leave Canada “in a fog” for years.
For example, next year’s being a decennial census (every 10 years), StatsCan will ask the religion question. But the data could not be accurately compared to the 2001 census to know the changes in the number of, say, Catholics in the country.
Clement’s rationale for the change — that the long form is “coercive and too intrusive” of privacy — is not to be taken at face value. (Many Canadians object to paying taxes or doing jury duty or even wearing seat belts, so why not do away with those?)
StatsCan has not violated anyone’s privacy, ever.
Clement also offered no evidence that a substantial number of Canadians had objected to the long form. But there is evidence from past censuses that laggards — those slow or reluctant to respond — were laggards, whether given the short form or the long form.
So, it’s hard to believe that the government is merely mollycoddling the yahoos who find the census intrusive. They are too few to matter, while those upset by the decision are too many to offend.
No, the real reason lies elsewhere.
“Harper does not like StatsCan, that’s what we kept hearing,” according to a longtime employee of the agency. “In particular, he does not like the analytical work we’ve done for years.” The Prime Minister thinks of it as fodder for critics.
Sure enough, it’s the analytical work that he has been decimating. Gone, truncated or privatized are surveys that kept track of pensions and benefits at our places of work; the proportion of our incomes going to housing, vacation, medical expenses to see how well or badly we all were doing; the level of inequality among Canadians; the economic integration of immigrants; and how people with physical and mental disabilities were coping.
“When these surveys were being cut back, the concerned federal departments were told not to comment on how that might muck up their work,” said the source. “They were told to shut up. The message had come from the top.”
Another source said that Clement had, in fact, advised against the decision, as had Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Both were overruled. “It was a one-man decision,” Harper’s.
“The PMO thought nobody would care,” added the source. But now, it’s said to be stunned by the range and depth of the backlash, from right across the political spectrum.
Even the conservative C.D. Howe Institute is upset. So also the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics (health scientists who make extensive use of census data in the research and practice areas of public health). So also academics who, besides being upset at losing the continuity of data, worry that they — and Canadian textbooks on economics, statistics, sociology, etc. — would end up using American data for classroom teaching.
Look at who else is calling on Harper to reverse himself:
Federation of Canadian Municipalities; Atlantic Provinces Economics Council; Canadian Association for Business Economics (bankers, applied economists, etc.); Canadian Institute of Planners; Canadian Economics Association (academics who teach economics); Canadian Council of Social Development; Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Canadian Statistical Society; Canadian Marketing Association; Canadian Research Data Centre Network; Canadian Census Committee; Canadian Association of University Teachers; Caledon Institute; Information and Communications Technology Council; Institute for Research on Public Policy (whose president Mel Cappe is Canada’s former top public servant as clerk of the Privy Council); City of Toronto; Toronto Public Health; United Way Toronto; and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.
Some of them have said they are “flabbergasted” and “profoundly concerned” by Harper’s “appalling,” “misguided” decision, which, besides being more expensive, would produce “degraded data” of “unpublishable quality” and “have disastrous consequences.”
Good. Harper might reverse his decision. Or he might dig in, which is what’s happening — for which he will pay a political price.
Digging the government deeper, Clement said Tuesday that “the government does not think it is necessary for Canadians to provide Statistics Canada with the number of bedrooms in their home, or at what time of the day they left for work and how long it takes them to get there.”
Actually, they do — so that businesses and governments would know how much lumber to order and gasoline to keep in stock, and what time to get the subways and buses rolling, and stop construction on the roads and highways to allow for a smoother flow of the daily commuter traffic.
~~Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star