PM told to ‘rethink’ census
McGuinty joins others urging Harper to change decision to make mandatory long form voluntary
Published On Wed Jul 28 2010
Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Les Whittington and Richard J. Brennan Ottawa Bureau, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Pressure is mounting on the Harper government to back down on its hotly disputed decision to replace the mandatory long-form census.
Premier Dalton McGuinty joined the chorus of business, government and academic interests urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to seek a compromise solution in time for the next census in 2011.
McGuinty called on the federal Conservatives to reevaluate their decision to change the mandatory 40-page census to a voluntary survey, a move that many experts say will nullify the value of the entire census exercise.
“I think it would be a mistake on the part of the federal government to make the change it is proposing,” McGuinty said. “I hope they are giving this a rethink.”
The census issue is expected to come up next week when McGuinty meets with his provincial counterparts at the annual premier's conference in Winnipeg.
In Ottawa Wednesday, the Liberals and the NDP kept up their campaign against the Conservatives' census policy, with both parties urging Harper to look at other options that would keep the mandatory nature of the 40-page survey.
“As far as the NDP is concerned, we want to find a solution here, a solution that protects the validity and integrity of the census data,” NDP Leader Jack Layton said in an interview.
Harper wants to make the long-form census voluntary so that Canadians would no longer be subject to a fine of up to $500 or up to three months in jail for not completing the questionnaire.
But experts say that making the 40-page census voluntary would fail to produce the information needed by governments, business, social agencies and others because certain groups, such as low-income earners and immigrants, might be less likely than others to fill out a voluntary questionnaire, throwing off the results. Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada, resigned in protest over the issue.
Although both the Liberals and NDP accuse the Harper government of manufacturing a fake issue over the census, they said they are willing to sit down with the Conservatives to try to find a compromise.
An acceptable middle ground would likely be one that requires Canadians to fill out the 40-page form while reducing the penalties for refusing to do so.
Layton said one option might be dropping the jail penalties but retaining a fine to preserve the mandatory nature of the survey.
The Harper government has hinted it might be interested in reaching a saw-off with the opposition parties. At a Commons industry committee hearing Tuesday, Industry Minister Tony Clement said he is willing to listen to suggestions for changing the census process.
But opposition MPs, who hold a majority of seats on the industry committee, passed a motion calling for the mandatory nature of the long-form census to be reinstated with the threat of jail time or fines intact.
With files from Tanya Talaga
Statistics Canada has removed questions about unpaid work from its replacement questionnaire for the infamous long-form census — an omission critics fear will lead to misdirected policy for seniors, women and children.
In the 2006 long census, Statistics Canada asked respondents how many hours a week they spent doing unpaid housework, yard work or home maintenance.
They also asked how much time they spent looking after their own children or other people's children, without pay, including helping kids with their homework and talking to teens about their problems.
Layton calls for census compromise
NDP Leader Jack Layton says he's prepared to sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reach a compromise on saving the mandatory long-form census.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Thursday, Layton said the compromise could include the elimination of the "bogus" threat of jail time for Canadians who refuse to fill out the survey.
At a news conference, Layton said the prime minister has used census statistics for his own work as an economist and should know the value of having a full, mandatory survey provide reliable data.
"I am willing to meet with him and discuss the possibilities," Layton said. "We have to preserve the only reliable portrait that we have of who we are as a country."
The Conservative government announced in late June it would end the mandatory long census form for 2011 and replace it with a voluntary national household survey.
Since then, there has been growing outcry from statisticians, community groups, as well as some provinces and municipalities, claiming policy-makers would no longer have reliable information to aid their decision-making.
Earlier this week, Industry Minister Tony Clement told the industry committee he recognizes the information gathered in the long-form census is "valuable," but the government has sought to find a "balance" between collecting data and respecting Canadians' privacy.
But Layton said it was time for Harper to stop "hiding behind" Clement and "backbench ideologues" such as Tory MP Maxime Bernier and "take things in hand."
Siddiqui: Civil servants shine amid Tory darkness
Published On Thu Jul 29 2010
By Haroon Siddiqui Editorial Page, Toronto Star
Instead of Munir Sheikh resigning as head of Statistics Canada, Tony Clement should have quit the cabinet. It was his dishonest suggestion — that he had the agency’s support in replacing the compulsory long census form with a voluntary one — that prompted Sheikh to depart.
Clement finally acknowledged to a parliamentary committee Tuesday that the decision had been entirely political. But his admission came too late to save a career civil servant, widely lauded for his integrity.
Had Clement been a man of principle, he would have refused Sheikh’s resignation last week and submitted his own. He had good reasons, having reportedly opposed Stephen Harper’s decision on the census, which he was defending only out of cabinet solidarity, a.k.a. keeping his job.
Sheikh outclassed Clement on the witness stand as well.
He honoured a public service tradition of never disclosing the private advice given a minister. He did not say that he resigned because Clement had misrepresented him. He left because news reports suggested that he had backed the government decision when he hadn’t.
His predecessor, Ivan Fellegi, was also blunt in telling MPs that axing the compulsory census form poses “a societal risk.”
It was heartening to hear such principled civil servants.
By contrast, Tory politicians have been reprehensible. Harper has been mute, while his minions put up lame defences.
They say that sending people to jail for not filling out census forms is coercive, though no one has ever been jailed over it. They are also hypocritically silent that jail terms remain for not filling out the short form. Still, if the law is too tough, why not change it?
The Tories fan the fear of private information being leaked. But there hasn’t been a single case of it being disclosed. Still, if the concern is valid, why not increase the penalty from $5,000 and a jail term of up to five years to what’s deemed suitable?
The Tories claim it’s too intrusive to ask about the number of bedrooms in a household. But that information is already available from your local land registry. StatsCan asks that on behalf of the housing industry and the federal government for the purposes of planning the national housing stock. If that’s objectionable, drop the question.
But do not muck up the national census. Yet that’s exactly what Harper wants to do.
It’s been speculated that the census decision is a sop to his right-wing base. That makes little sense. His base is already solid. He needs to make inroads into Ontario and B.C. That’s where this decision was least likely to go over well — and hasn’t (54 per cent and 53 per cent opposed, respectively, according to an Angus Reid poll).
He is following his own (selective) libertarian instincts — the less government the better (except when it comes to collecting tax information and taxes).
He’s doing with the census what the Republicans under George W. Bush tried but failed.
They wanted to make America’s compulsory census voluntary. But they had the good sense to test the idea before proceeding. They found it prohibitively expensive to get data of comparable quality. So they abandoned the idea. Not Harper.
He has been told by experts that, in a voluntary survey, some people respond, others don’t, thereby skewing the results. You can’t fix that by boosting the sample. You end up wasting your money ($30 million in this case). Worse, you render all that past census data useless because you won’t be able to compare it to the new data.
It is a measure of Harper’s intransigence that he has dug in his heels despite the four-week-long non-partisan national uproar during the summer holiday season when Canadians normally have better things to do than pay much attention to politics.
The forms for the census in May next year must go to the printers within days. Yet Harper is holding the census hostage to his ideology, while also leaving Statistics Canada leaderless and rudderless.
A bigger disaster looms: With all this talk of the census becoming voluntary, too many Canadians may not fill out even the short form, which will remain compulsory.
Fellegi has suggested a non-partisan committee of eminent Canadians to find a suitable candidate to replace Sheikh and get us out of this mess. That’s his way of ensuring that the Prime Minister does not appoint a Tory toady.
Don’t hold your breath.
Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursday and Sunday.