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The Progressive Economics Forum

After the Fall – What’s Next for the Census?

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.

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Comments

Comment from Erin Weir
Time: July 22, 2010, 8:13 pm

I think that your historical comparison is unfair to Diefenbaker’s legacy and way too complimentary to Clement.

Half a century ago, there was a substantive debate, with Coyne championing tight monetary policy and Diefenbaker wanting a more stimulative approach. There were also legitimate process issues about whether the Bank Governor should publicly criticize the government’s fiscal policy and whether the elected government should be able to influence the Bank’s monetary policy.

Today, there is no substance or legitimacy to Clement’s position. As you have written before, his census decision is completely senseless.

Comment from Kelsey Kirkland
Time: July 22, 2010, 10:54 pm

Actually this government, or as Tony Clement today referred to as Government of Canada has another strategy – pitting Canadians against Canadians. Announcing overhaul of Affirmative Action, Jason Kenney must have confused it with his government’s foreign policy. I am sure he is very proud how he chartered a Canadian flight for Brenda Martin and cutting of funding of certain groups – there is a long list . So how can Canadians trust them with their meddling of Statscan leading to the resignation Mr Munir Sheikh? On top of that the Conservative government is taking aim at Affirmative Action at this juncture? Perhaps, auditing of Green projects funding distribution by this government can demonstrate the faults they see in the Affirmative Action. Prove it!

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: July 23, 2010, 7:26 am

I truly believe Statcan will never be what it once was. Such huge controversy will tarnish the image forever, and this is all, every bit, every slice, every media jab, every hit to the notion of neutrality is exactly what Harper was up to here.

Now no matter what, whenever a researcher makes a report, it will forever be tainted by the notions that this whole incident leaves within the populations mind.

I can hear it now, researcher spends even more time trying to tame the numbers because of he funky methods one has to incorporate from this voluntary change, crunches and analyzes the numbers, writes the report, puts the research out to policy makers and/or the public and immediately people will recall this crisis, and say, oh right those are the numbers that Harper messed up when he phracked up the census. Ignore the results and go with the gut- the ultimate dumbing down of social society so far reaching I am amazed. Kind of diabolically planned and plotted and sold to the people as something for them ‘aka privacy’- when indeed being truly against them- no striving for objectivity/ no route to neutrality because the bridge was blown to smithereens.

Internationally we are toast as well, with the government reaching way inside of the functionality of Statcan, they have virtually destroyed everything Statcan has tried to nurture and grow since a very long time ago that Jean Talon first tried to establish.

It is amazing how a little monkey like Clement can do this much harm in such a short time. Over a hundred years to build, and just a two weeks to destroy.

I do believe this was the goal all along. Phrack up statcan.

I hope people/voters go for the throat.

pt

Comment from Armine Yalnizyan
Time: July 23, 2010, 7:36 am

Paul, the Government is made very happy by comments like this. You are right that part of the strategy is to discredit official data. Let us not feed that frame of thinking. The deed is not yet done, and if we reverse this decision no serious harm has been done. The erosion of other survey tools and analysis regarding distributional issues could be reversed by new governments.
You get the strategy. Don’t end up unwittingly playing on their side.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: July 23, 2010, 7:48 am

the only problem Armine, I do not think the people who need to fight this are realizing the depth of the assault we have going here. So I am trying to wake them up. This is a much bigger libertarian assault than most people realize.

You are right though, we can always get the census back in place in forthcoming iterations.

But we need to get the message out that this will be the outcome if we do not get every available ally to push.

No matter what I say, what I noted above will essentially transpire if Harper is allowed to follow through on this.

And essentially this is why Harper is so willingly taking all this political back lash- it is one of pillars of the libertarians- take out the state’s credibility and this is the ultimate nuclear strike into the heart of the Canadian State.

Like a felt covered hammer that begins to feel good when you are hit, Harper is seemingly making this assault into something that people really want.

the libertarian way I guess.

Comment from Armine Yalnizyan
Time: July 23, 2010, 7:59 am

Sorry Paul, perhaps I did not express myself clearly.

You think I am saying “we can always get the census back in place in forthcoming iterations”

Absolutely not.

It is critically important to reverse the Government’s decision on the Census long-form. That, and that alone, has irreversible consequences.

We cannot make up for things later if this goes forward as planned, and a host of other surveys dependent on it for accuracy become questionable in their accuracy for half a decade thereafter.

This is a deadly game they are playing – undermining government, undermining official information, undermining authority. That way, as I have said before, lies anarchy.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: July 23, 2010, 8:48 am

I know very well how deeply this goes but that is exactly what many people are not realizing.

The media is essentially personifying this as some kind of silly small mistake that Harper is making.

I have read NDP, Liberal MPs, city planners, MPPs and many others commenting on this and they all seem to just think this is just a silly mistake. A small slip up thta somehow Harper, once he is somehow made aware of his small over sight, will somehow correct this and back track.

That misses the mark and only massages the notion to the public that is simply just a small oversight by a bunch of bumbling out of control tories.

THEY KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THEY ARE DOING HERE.

THIS HAS BEEN PLANNED FOR SOME TIME AND IT IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST LIBERTARIAN MOVES YET BY HARPER.

And all pretty much under the radar of a media personified, simple oversight, a silly attack by Harper on the pointy headed privacy intrusive civil servants.

I just read 3 MPs 1 liberal and 2 NDP critical review of this and even these high ranking apparently informed reps- DO NOT GET WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE.

This is a full frontal assault.

And yes I know very very clearly the linkages between the Census and the many other surveys, I have actually designed some of those linkages, worked on the sampling plans, I know it organically how far reaching this assault is and I do agree with you, one census year of mutant data will definitely impregnate and contaminate much of the data quality for most likely a decade at least.

So if we can get something in place for the next census cycle that fixes this, we suffer about 10 years of bad data and are left with a historical significant blemish in cross sectional comparability- permanently.

I will lay a whole pile of money on Harper not changing his mind, unless this fight is elevated to a whole new level. Like the media actually reporting on how seriously costly this will be for a wide spectrum of society.

We are getting there in terms of educating but there is not enough damage yet- BBQ season is in full swing and hence the timing of the assault.

pt

Comment from Armine Yalnizyan
Time: July 23, 2010, 9:04 am

Paul, what you are witnessing here is a mass public education process.
I agree it is an explicit strategy. An insurgency of sorts, really.
Increasingly people are connecting the dots and seeing the game plan for what it is.
Not a silly mistake, but a way of undercutting the authority and credibility of public decision-making, putting in question the authority of government and, consequently, the notion of a public interest.
I take heart in the steady development of a rejection of this decision, whether people see how far-reaching it is or not.
If you have not already seen it, this is a superb editorial, from the Globe and Mail.
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/on-the-census-canada-should-accept-no-substitute/article1648942/

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: July 23, 2010, 9:25 am

yep I read it but it gets too technical. This article’s technical assessment only gets part way into the technical damage and savagery to what the low response rate the census does to a multistage cluster sampling plan that the census incorporates, and the under/over representation that results.

Ultimately the methods damage is far more intense and intrusive and across the board bad for producing quality. It is not the Standard errors that are a problem, it is the over and under sampling within the clusters that the door way to bias is left wide open. And hence this spreads like wild fire throught not just the census, but many of the connected surveys, algorithms and planning models both inside and outside of stats canada.

Many external data users, have automated systems developed that take the data from census and feed it into their systems, on a cyclical basis. Many times they use the census as the baseline year and then use growth rates projections and such which although bring in more error try and to correct for the 5 year cyclical behaviour and then finally by the time the census rolls around are finally the models are corrected and re-calibrated and the sometimes the previous estimates of the intervening years are re-assessed and such.

So if the baseline census calibration year is now less reliable, these models become even more error prone and at some point counter productive to even make use of hence my point that the bridge to objectivity is being blown to smithereens.

I think the best article so far outlining what really is going on here was Jeffery Simpson’s take.

He nailed it although he did not quite go far enough to understand that this is actually the ultimate assault on the state and the ability of planners of many stripes of the political sprectrum.

This is not bumbling by any stretch of the imagination. This is a legitimate well placed strike to the heart of a democratic institution that produces the best quality of national information in the world.

And until we get the heat cranked up a whole lot higher, you will not see Harper back off. There are no alternatives to the quality of information as I made clear above, and this is indeed an all out war on the state, hence why Dr. Sheikh resigned.

So I am trying what I can to educate from my experience to inform those wanting to save Statcan, what exactly the nature and the degree of the assault.

pt.

pardon my grammer, I am in a Toby hurry right now- Ontario awaits some data to stave off a wage freeze.

Comment from Sgt. Pepper
Time: August 20, 2010, 5:05 pm

I would prefer for the entire census to be voluntary, not mandatory.

But I am reluctantly willing to compromise and keep the short form census mandatory, so long as the invasive, frivolous, offensive long-form census is made voluntary.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: August 20, 2010, 8:18 pm

hey Sarge, why not go back to your cave and let the rest of us have a civilization.

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