Selecting the Next Chief Statistician

There are many ways to view the legacy of Prime Minister Harper and his Government thus far, but few offer evidence that the processes and institutions of democracy are held with any esteem.

The selection of the latest Governor General of Canada has been described as one such rare example.

The process of selecting the Governor General was, notably, an invention of the Prime Minister.

Creative and well-suited to the serious task at hand, Harper’s chosen approach took political hands off the wheel, both in optics and in substance.

He named a committee of six eminent persons, each of whom understood the nature of the office and duties of the Governor General: Kevin MacLeod, Usher of the Black Rod and Canadian secretary to the Queen; Sheila-Marie Cook, secretary to the Governor-General; Father Jacques Monet of the Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies; Christopher Manfredi, dean of the Faculty of Arts at McGill; University of Calgary political scientist Rainer Knopff; and historian Christopher McCreery, private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia.

They were charged with developing a short list of candidates for the consideration of the Prime Minister, who would – as is the tradition – provide his advice to the Queen who would – as is also the tradition – appoint Canada’s new Governor General on this advice.

The selection committee consulted with over 200 people as to who best would fit the requirements of the office in today’s politically charged environment. Among those approached were premiers, former prime ministers and the two leaders of the opposition who address themselves to the issues of the Canadian state as a whole – Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton.

At the end of this process, the name at the top of the short list was David Johnston – dean of law at University of Western Ontario, long-time principal of McGill University, former president of University of Waterloo, and one of Canada’s most respected advocates for higher education. Harper chose Johnson and his acceptance of this tacit recommendation set off broad-based murmurs of approval.

The importance of this course of action for decision-making cannot be overstated, for three reasons: 1) the high regard with which the current office holder, Michaelle Jean, is held; 2) the unusually important role the Governor General has played in state affairs in the past two years, acceding to the request of the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament twice in as many years; and 3) a minority government that has mostly governed as if it holds a majority of seats, producing fractious politics in the wake of unusually bold measures and frequent episodes of brinksmanship.

The census affair is emblematic of just this type of maverick behavior, and would benefit from a show of statesmanship by the Prime Minister just about now.

On July 21, three weeks after the Government’s quiet announcement of the decision to replace the mandatory long-form census questionnaire with a voluntary survey, Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh quit. He submitted a sober and elegant letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, who appointed him, and to whom he is accountable. Within hours, the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, the agency, responded with a short and resolute statement, which could be summed up as saying “Thanks. Next.” It finished thus: “Until a permanent successor can be found Wayne Smith, Assistant Chief Statistician, Business and Trade Statistics, will act on an interim basis.”

A month has passed. The time has come to find that permanent successor to Munir Sheikh.

The process chosen by Prime Minister Harper to select the next Governor General of Canada would be an appropriate model to select the next Chief Statistician of Canada.

It is, in fact, very close to the process suggested by former Chief Statistician, Ivan Fellegi, almost immediately after Munir Sheikh’s resignation.

A group of eminent persons, both national and international, with thorough knowledge of the role of a statistical agency, could provide a highly transparent and visible search process to re-establish the integrity, authority and independence of Statistics Canada.

The committee should include representation from the National Statistics Council, the Statistical Society of Canada, and from an international body that relies heavily on statistics, such as the OECD or UN. It could lean on former Clerks of the Privy Council or Governors of the Bank of Canada, all of whom need census data to do their work. Dr. Fellegi, himself, would be a great choice too, given his unimpeachable credentials, international standing, and over 50 years of service with Statistics Canada, over 20 years of which were as Chief Statistician.

A good selection process would be a solid step towards resolving what has turned into a drama of Shakespearian proportions, a Midsummer Night’s Nightmare for politicians and everyday Canadians alike. It should be launched immediately. And Stephen Harper should be the one to announce it.

3 comments

  • This is an elegantly written post, but I’m missing why a statistician selection process should mimic a governor-general selection process.

    The governor-general process is politically sensitive because the prime minister, in a sense, reports to the governor-general. But the chief statistician reports to the government. So I see how a thorough consultative selection process is important for selecting one’s boss, but when selecting an employee, you generally are looking for someone who is going to play well for your team.

    Munir Sheikh, to his credit, wasn’t that guy. But having a bunch of stats wonks pick the most qualified statistician they can find isn’t the answer, as it could potentially lead to another adversarial situation between StatsCan and the government. All that does is create more turmoil and instability at an organization that must be in need of clear leadership at the moment.

    As long as the government is allowed to boss around StatsCan and its chief statistician, it only makes sense for them to have one of their own running the show.

  • Hi Armine, Wayne Smith will remain in the position for quite some time, or he will assume it permanently. He is a yes man, and importantly, he does not believe in analysis. He’s already told staff that big cuts are coming, and overwhelmingly, these are coming from analysis. I can send you the interview in which he states this if you like.

  • David Johnson is known as a prominent Grit in Ottawa circles, if I recall correctly. I got to work with him in Ottawa as he chaired the Information Highway Advisory Council, for which I worked as a Secretariat economist (one of my first real jobs). An IHAC member even referred to him as an “eminence grit” in a Vancouver Sun oped. So interesting choice on the part of Harper given the role of the GG in Dec 2008.

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