Originally published in the National Post on July 27th, 2010. To go to the Globe and Mail Website please click here
It’s just as well for Tony Clement that he helped save a woman from drowning last weekend — it’s likely to be the last good news story he features in for quite some time.
The Industry Minister’s testimony at a specially convened committee meeting on Parliament Hill on Tuesday will have won few converts to the government’s argument that scrapping the mandatory long-form census is a smart and necessary move.
The world’s most boring political scandal rumbled on, as MPs were recalled to hear from a long list of witnesses, who almost unanimously condemned the government’s plan.
Walking past the tourists and the marching bands on the lawn of Parliament Hill to cover the committee felt like a descent into the ninth circle of Hell. Inside a stifling, packed committee room, Mr. Clement made the case that the government should not threaten people who fail to fill in the census with jail time.
On this, he has a point. It is also conceivable that some people may find census questions about home repairs and spousal support to be “coercive and invasive,” as the Industry Minister suggested.
But the government’s solution — to make the mandatory form voluntary — has received such blanket condemnation — even from those who are normally staunch Conservative allies, such as seniors organization CARP — that the government is looking not so much out of touch, as out to lunch.
Mr. Clement claimed that a $30-million advertising campaign and a much larger sample size will eliminate concerns about the quality of the data gathered in the 2011 census.
But a number of other witnesses disagreed. Former chief statistician Ivan Fellegi, said the next census could be “unusable” because the information will not be comparable to data from previous years. He urged the government to follow the recommendation suggested by the National Statistics Council (NSC), the government’s advisory group, which has called for the threat of jail sentences to be removed and some questions on household activities to be dropped for the next census in 2016.
This seems to be a common sense compromise but common sense and a willingness to compromise seem to have deserted this government of late. The NSC wasn’t even consulted on the changes that former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond said would produce “misleading” data. (He argued that voluntary responses would not be representative of the population, since there would likely be too many white, middle-class Canadians and too few immigrants, aboriginals and poor people.)
In the absence of any other explanation, it must be assumed the Conservatives made this strange move to appeal to those libertarians in their voting base. Let’s hope it’s made someone happy.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau complained to Mr. Clement that he had “manufactured this crisis.” But the problem for the Conservatives is they didn’t manufacture it well enough.
A good communications strategy requires the tale to be told in two halves — the disaster story one day and the triumph story the next. The government provided a solution for which there was no problem that anyone has been able to discern. As NDP MP Charlie Angus noted, no one has been ever been jailed for not filling in the census form, while the Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, said there have been just 50 census-related complaints to her office in the past 20 years.