Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Senseless Census Debate in Canada

I wanted to share with you a piece I have written for The Mark on the debate around the census in Canada. In case you didn't know, the current government has announced that it will make the census a largely voluntary exercise; this has aroused predictable opposition from the opposition. This article is part of a wider series on The Mark and you should go to the site to get the full view. Here's my take.

A Conservative Experiment in Faux Populism

PeopleDo Canadians really care about the fate of the long-form census?

Embattled Industry Minister Tony Clement has previously dismissed opposition to his government as coming solely from the country’s elites. “It may not be what the chattering classes want, but we’re not here to govern on behalf of the chattering classes,” he once said. For whatever reason Clement believes Canada to be some sort of banana republic.
The scrapping of the long-form census is another example of the misguided foray into the faux populism that the Conservative party appears to be enamoured with. Yet this does not justify the apocalyptic anaphylaxis experienced by the opposition in response to the census changes. Ultimately, both sides should realize that this senseless census debate overshadows much more important conversations on other policy issues, particularly health care and the economy.
The scrapping of the long-form census was one more policy change that was neither urgent nor convincing. Was there really a clamouring for this change at this time? Did the government really need to strong-arm the head of Statistics Canada so much so that he felt he needed to resign?
The Conservatives have a history of similar decisions. There was the debate over abortions during the G8 summit for example, or the decision to shut down a key access to information database.
It also fits into a pattern where the Tories want less information and less oversight in an apparent“dumbing down” of Canada, as suggested by former prime minister Paul Martin.
Yet, while the Conservatives may have unnecessarily opened a debate, they have hardly opened Pandora’s box. The mandatory shorter census will now consist of eight primary questions about the basic composition of the household in addition to a couple queries about language. The longer-form census will now be a voluntary survey. What exactly is asked in the longer survey? Where were you born? What were the ethnic or cultural origins of your ancestors? Where did you live one year ago? Where were each of your parents born? How many hours do you spend doing unpaid work? Did you look for paid work in the last four weeks? How do you get to work every day?
It’s not unreasonable that some Canadians have privacy concerns about these questions. At the same time, the absence of answers will hinder informed policy-making. Instead of further bickering and grandstanding, the opposition and the government should both get their act together, address the varying concerns that exist, and find a compromise.
Simply put, most Canadians are not waking up in the morning and thinking about the fate of the census. It’s time to move on.

1 comment:

  1. People against the mandatory census talk of their rights and coercion, and does a group have the right to demand an individual answer questions about their life against their will.
    So what's more important, the group that needs something from you or the rights of the individual? Hasn't this question been played out countless times over the centuries around the world? How was this question settled? I guess it depends which country you live in. Some countries certainly protect the rights of the individual over the right of the group a lot better than others.
    The standard in the western world for data collection from individuals is informed consent, (with the one and only exception of the mandatory census). Maybe it's time to look at this issue and have a real debate about the issues.

    A really long list of the people and groups who use and need this data and support the mandatory census is also a list of people who are for coercion and don't believe in informed consent.
    I'll ask the politicians and business groups who "need" details about my personal life to keep their questions off of me thanks.