Lies, Damned Lies, And The Census

“(The Unites States), and particularly your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world.” – Stephen Harper, 1997

In an astonishing display of incompetence, and a complete disregard for the facts, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is forging ahead with plans to scrap the mandatory long form census. The move, cited as “government stupidity” by the former directer of the United States Census Bureau, has drawn the ire of academics, statisticians, economists, genealogists, medical associations, provincial and municipal governments, religious organizations, and charitable groups, just to name a few. It has also prompted criticism from former head of Statistics Canada Ivan Fellegi, and resulted in the very public resignation of Harper’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh. In a letter posted to the Statistics Canada website, Sheikh wrote in part:

“I have always honoured my oath and responsibilities as a public servant as well as those specific to the Statistics Act. I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It cannot.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister.”

(Sheikh’s letter was quickly removed by the government. Anticipating this act of cowardice by Harper, I captured a screen shot for documentation.)

Sheikh’s revelation flies in the face of assurances given by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who claimed he’d “asked [Statistics Canada] specifically, ‘Are you confident you can do your job?’ They said ‘If you do these extra things: the extra advertising and the extra sample size, then yes, we can do our job.’ “

Clement’s false assertion that he had the support of Statistics Canada is one of the many flawed arguments put forward by the Harper government in efforts to garner support for the unpopular, and purely ideological, policy decision.

The primary justification given for scrapping the long form census were based on Conservative allegations of ‘outrage’ by ‘ordinary citizens “who felt [the long form census] was an intrusion of their privacy.” Taking this explanation one step further, Conservative MP Maxime Bernier insisted he personally “received an average of 1,000 e-mails a day during the [2006] census to my MP office complaining about all that, so I know that Canadians who were obliged to answer that long-form census – very intrusive in their personal lives – I know they were upset.”

So, were Canadians really up in arms over the census in the past? Not according to the Canada’s privacy watchdog, whose office received a grand total of THREE complaints regarding the census over the course of the last decade. Furthermore, a comprehensive study undertaken by Statistics Canada following the 2006 census fails to substantiate the government’s claim of widespread privacy concerns from citizens. The 53 page StatsCan report, which garnered over 1,200 responses from “government agencies, municipalities, non-profits, community groups, academics, private businesses and ordinary citizens,” makes no mention of Canadians finding the census intrusive or overly burdensome.

As for the “thousands of e-mail [complaints] a day” Bernier claimed he’d received during the 2006 census period, he alleges “these messages were obviously not filed for future use by my staff and were deleted.”

Of course they were.

Regarding the reliability and accuracy of information gathered through a voluntary questionnaire, one only has to look to our neighbours to the south, who in 2003 experimented with a voluntary survey in place of a mandatory census. What resulted was an expensive mess of skewed and degraded data, prompting an about face on the very idea of a voluntary form.

Even so, despite having already proven to be a costly blunder, Industry Minister Clement took to twitter to refute criticism from experts who’ve warned that a voluntary survey would result in key segments of the population being underrepresented. Clement’s argument? “Wrong. Statisticians can ensure validity w larger sample size.”

The scope of ignorance displayed by that single tweet was summed up with devastating beauty by Andrew Potter of Maclean’s:

“Clement’s statistical illiteracy is so profound it gives one vertigo. The notion that simply making the sample bigger can’t fix a skewed sample is something undergraduates learn in first-year classes, yet is somehow beyond the mental grasp of a senior minister of a G8 country. And the comedic benefit of watching Clement fail first-year economics is undermined by the cold realization that he fundamentally does not understand the intellectual foundations of the files that he controls. When he is cornered by his intellectual betters, moreover, Clement’s instinct is to reach for the debating-hall comforts of cheap populism.”

Thus is the crux of the matter: The ill-advised move on the census is based not on tangible arguments nor on substantiated data, but on a shrewd political calculation made to play to the Conservative’s ideological base. Notice the champions of doing away with the long form census are Right Wing ideologues who read from a single script of talking points; Who share in a fundamental lack of understanding surrounding the importance of the long form census, and who exhibit a callous disregard for the people who’d be impacted the most.

Even Tom Flanagan, influential conservative and former chief of staff to Harper, fails to see the justification behind the move, noting “it’s just never been an issue in the Conservative movement. It just literally comes out of nowhere as far as I can see.” Flanagan is also critical of the underhanded manner by which the Conservatives made the change, believing “it was an exercise in bad government to suddenly spring this on the public without any previous discussion, no consultation at all. You don’t deal with the public that way in a democracy.”

Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the Harper government isn’t particularly concerned about a functioning democracy. They remain oblivious to the havoc created as a result of ill-conceived policy decisions, and at this moment, remain unfazed as a world class Canadian institution devolves into chaos. Regarded as the international gold standard, the legacy of Statistics Canada at risk of being permanently tarnished through no fault of its own; Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale, echoing the sentiment from within Statistics Canada, telling reporters that “[Statistics Canada’s] reputation is hanging by a thread at the hands of a bungling minister and a Conservative government that simply doesn’t believe in fact-based decision making.”

Indeed, ignoring evidence while crafting policy has become a recurring theme for this government; One who’d rather build talking points to support their desired legislation, than build legislation based on indisputable, real world, information.

Our current legislators would be wise to heed the advice of André Pratte of La Presse:

“Before this government does even more harm to the institution that is the government of Canada, the intelligent people within the federal cabinet have a duty to rise up and stop the pillaging. Otherwise, the Harper government may be remembered as one of the most incompetent and harmful governments this country has ever known.”

Further reading: A breakdown of how the long form census information is used, and a breakdown of the consequences of ending the mandatory long form census.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca