Canadian politicians, bureaucrats brawl over compulsory census

08:48, July 28, 2010      

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Canada's Conservative government' s plan to cut a complex, mandatory census questionnaire for 2011 and replace it with a voluntary form seemed like a minor decision, but the fall-out has generated a power struggle between bureaucrats and politicians.

The Conservative government, elected in 2006, is trying to put its ideological stamp on the actions of the federal bureaucracy. Conservatives see the country's public administration as ideologically opposed to many of the government's libertarian and free-market policies.

The census fight, which seemed minor when it erupted two weeks ago, became serious last week when Munir Sheikh, the country's chief statistician, resigned over the government's plan to drop the mandatory "long form" census in 2011. In the past, Canadians faced the threat of a fine or jail if they did not fill out the 40- page form, although no one had actually been imprisoned for refusing to divulge information.

The mandatory survey will be replaced with one that Canadians can fill out if they choose to. This plan has been criticized by some provinces, municipalities, commercial, industrial and financial groups that use the statistics in their decision-making.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is responsible for overseeing Statistics Canada, told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that he regrets the resignation of the chief statistician but holds firm to his belief that the old system is too intrusive.

While information gathered under the long form system, "we also recognize that a balance must be drawn when the government is collecting data under the threat of fines or jail or both," the minister said.

Critics of the plan accuse the government of being blinded by neo-conservative ideology and of creating a crisis where none existed before. Liberal MP Marc Garneau, a former astronaut who is now a member of the House of Commons committee on industry, accused the government of replacing science with ideology.

Garneau claimed the minister misled Canadians when he said the quality of information from the voluntary system would be as high as material collected from the mandatory form.

"We know that this is not true,"Garneau said."I know that it is not true. We know that the chief statistician resigned as a result of it. Why is it that you indulged in this misinformation in front of Canadians as opposed to being forthright, and open and honest about how Statistics Canada actually felt about it, namely that a voluntary approach was not going to yield the same quality."

Garneau pointed out that in 2006 about 95 percent of Canadians who received the mandatory long form filled it out "without any fuss whatsoever."

His comments echoed those of University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan, who mentored Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a graduate student and later went on to be Harper's first chief of staff.

In a recent media interview, Flanagan wondered why the government has taken such an intransigent stand over a seeming minor problem. "It's just never been an issue in the Conservative movement," he said. "It just literally comes out of nowhere as far as I can see."

"I think it was an exercise in bad government to suddenly spring this on the public without any previous discussion, no consultation at all," he said. "You don't deal with the public that way in a democracy."

"They are alienating a lot of people who have supported the government and would like to continue supporting the government, people who are fundamentally Conservatives but see this as just bad government," said Flanagan. "It's not clear to me what they're going to pick up from this politically and they're irritating a lot of people who would like to be their friends."

At Tuesday's committee hearing, New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus said Clement and the Conservatives have created a false belief among the Canadian public that they would face " jackboots kicking down the door" for refusing to fill out a mandatory form. But Clement said the government had the legal right to change the way the census is conducted and to determine which questions are asked. On the old 40-page form, Canadians were required to answer detailed questions about property ownership, their employment, marital status, and ethnicity. Clement told the committee he had spoken to a former census taker who said some immigrants were "terrified of being deported" if they refused to fill out the form.

The seemingly minor controversy is, in fact, a fight over how much power the elected representatives have over a bureaucracy that was mainly created by the Liberal party and is seen by the governing Conservatives as hostile to their small-government, free- market agenda.

For their part, bureaucrats believe politicians lack the expertise to make important decisions and should rely on the experts in their departments. In this case, Sheikh and most of the rest of his staff at Statistics Canada opposed the census changes, and Sheikh told the committee he felt compelled to resign to protect the integrity of the department and his own reputation.

Alex Himelfarb, who headed the federal public service in the last Liberal regime, accused the government of trying to inject partisan views into the public service's decision-making process.

"Statistics Canada, which has earned a sterling international reputation, has long understood that it can do its job of informing public and private decisions and supporting democratic accountability only if people trust in its integrity and technical competence," Himelfarb said last week.

"I have not yet had the opportunity to talk with Munir (Sheik) but I imagine that this is why he felt it necessary, when doubts arose about what Statistics Canada advised, to acknowledge publicly that the voluntary approach he was to implement is not a substitute for the mandatory survey.

"No Chief Statistician would want people to lose trust, to think that Statistics Canada compromised its technical advice to the government or would, in any way, misrepresent the information it provides to Canadians. This goes to the heart of the agency's credibility and of the values of public service," Himelfarb said.

Many observers expected the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to back down on the census issue, but it appears the prime minister has dug in his heels on the issue. Government sources say Harper made the decision last December to kill the mandatory long form census and determined to make the issue a test of strength of his government.

While Harper only has a minority in Parliament, it is expected he will call an election within months. If he wins a majority, it is likely he will make major cuts to the bureaucracy and federal programs to bring down the country's 53 billion Canadian dollars deficit and to reduce the role of the state in personal and economic affairs.



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