There aren’t many stories like this one.
You have to go back half a century, to Diefenbaker and Coyne, to find a parallel. Then too, a Prime Minister increasingly viewed as overly controlling insisted on an unworkable policy until the Governor of the Bank of Canada had no choice but to step down, in an attempt to preserve both his and the institution’s integrity.
Yesterday Munir Sheikh, Canada’s Chief Statistician, submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister, to whom he reports. Tony Clement, Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, took over and without missing a beat announced a replacement and the fact that the Conservatives were going to barrel through with the decision to axe the mandatory census long-form questionnaire, evidence be damned.
Today there is a murmur in the land. People are wondering: will the resignation prove to be the Waterloo in the Conservative’s war on information? Or is it another lost battle, pushing us closer to the land of decision-based evidence-making?
If the decision goes forward as planned, this government will have undermined the cornerstone of information about the Canadian people. The architecture of knowledge about how we function and evolve as a society will be irreversibly weakened and start to crack.
This has become a high-stakes game; and just when you think it can’t escalate further, it turns into more of a cliffhanger, with gasp-out-loud turns of the plot.
Yet, though the odds are long, a successful resolution may still occur. In this story, success means reversing the Government’s decision. Here are the reasons why a happy ending is still possible:
There’s Still Time
There are three possible openings for fruitful discussion in the immediate future:
Meetings with groups of reasonable people (i.e. including people who vote Conservative) can be held when Industry Minister Tony Clement returns from overseas. Meetings, such as the one requested on Monday would help save face and might help craft a way out.
The House of Commons Industry Committee is holding summer meetings, which is unusual but not unprecedented. If committee members agree to hear from some of the organizations that have requested standing, one or more witnesses could suggest an exit-strategy from this suicide mission.
The Council of the Federation (the Premiers of Canada’s provinces and territories) meets in early August. The Prime Minister has not yet played his hand. Stephen Harper could cast himself in the role of statesman, entering into negotiations with his peers and saving the day. (I know, I know) Even before this annual event takes place, the provincial and territorial Ministers of social services are meeting. Backroom discussions there, too, could identify or smooth the path forward.
Everyone Makes Mistakes
The Harper government has shown it can be nimble in acknowledging a mistake. Take for example the rapid reversal of the decision to rewrite the lyrics to the National anthem in gender-neutral language.
It’s also been clumsy. Remember the adamant “there will be no deficit” stance? It held for months, even as the global economy fell off a cliff, bringing Canada down with it. It took time and, undoubtedly, a flurry of private talks, but there was a retreat.
There Are Alternatives
The Harper government has repeated one message of concern with regard to the census: that it epitomizes the coerciveness of the state, by invading privacy and extracting information from Canadians on pain of jail time. You’d think we live in a police state.
Put aside for a moment how weird this message is: the Government telling Canadians how and why government cannot be trusted is like the President of General Motors telling you why you should not like their cars. The point is, can anyone cite a single case of a Canadian citizen ending up in prison because of the census?
Ironically, the Conservatives are systematically moving 17 bills through Parliament which will put more people in jail and keep them there longer. Of course, this is good jail time, not coercion by the state.
Are these the same Conservatives who now are offended by the powers of the state? Who suggest, when it comes to the census, non-compliance with the law is OK? The Minister actually refers to the census refusniks as “conscientious objectors” when he talks. Seriously? What war is Clement fighting?
The Harper government has never been shy about using its powers to the fullest extent, but this is still a democracy. If the Government doesn’t like the rules, it can introduce amendments to the Statistics Act — like dropping jail time and leaving in fines for non-compliance. The Parliamentary process then can debate how best to balance all the public interests at play.
We must hang onto our cautious optimism.
Canadians understand that we are about to blindside public and private decision-makers alike. Every day there are more voices added to the chorus of organizations and individuals whose solitary common ground is to turn this disruptive decision around.
If Canadians across the political spectrum can stand together on this issue, so can the people elected to represent their interests.
A good decision is till possible. Stay tuned. This is democracy in action.