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Industry Minister Tony Clement appears before the House of Commons Industry committee looking into changes of the long-form census on Parliament in Ottawa, Tuesday July 27, 2010. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Industry Minister Tony Clement appears before the House of Commons Industry committee looking into changes of the long-form census on Parliament in Ottawa, Tuesday July 27, 2010. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

Senseless census argument number four Add to ...

In attacking critics of the decision to scrap the long-form census, the federal government is missing the mark. The long-form census benefits everyone in Canada, not a few special interest cliques, and the federal government is uniquely situated to run it.

Tony Clement, the Industry Minister, has turned his guns on the many groups and governments in vocal opposition. The long-form census "worked for them. Doesn't mean it worked for other Canadians," said Mr. Clement. They "had a good deal going," getting data on the cheap with the federal government as enforcer. The new system will work fine, Mr. Clement said, and, "if they don't want to use that data … they can pay for it another way."

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In a federal state, a national endeavour such as the long-form census helps bind the country. It is an ideal function for the federal government. Like weather reports, another service Canadians rely on their federal government to deliver, the results of the census are a classic public good.

A census is difficult for smaller entities to undertake, and it provides diffuse, but significant, benefits: better information about consumers, which improves efficiency and productivity; and better information for governments, smaller public institutions and researchers, which makes for better public policy, and ultimately better delivery in fields such as health and education.

A government that takes pride in its managerial competence should see these as positive attributes, to be safeguarded and nurtured.

The long-form census is one of the most efficient ways to collect this data. Contrary to Mr. Clement's implication, Statistics Canada gets some return on its investment. The agency spent almost $500-million last year, but took in over $120-million in revenues.

This is the fourth distinct reason that the Conservatives have given for cancelling the long-form census, and each one has been found wanting. First, it was too coercive (even though no one has evidently ever been charged for not filling out the census). Then, they argued that the replacement voluntary survey would be sufficient (even though it is more expensive, and more subject to bias). Then, misleading answers - too many people claiming to be Jedi knights - justified the change (even though StatsCan's adjustments for the mandatory census make it more reliable than any other survey).

Now, in their disdain for the myriad groups that have opposed the decision, the Conservatives appear to be rallying anew, in defence of an idealized individual who needs government help to fight an "intrusive" government census. But ultimately, no such person exists. No individual is disconnected from society. The "they" Mr. Clement is condemning is, in fact, "us."

This decision's political merits are opaque, and its policy merits are lacking. Rather than offer up any other pretexts, the federal government should acknowledge the emptiness of its own arguments, reverse course, and bring back the mandatory long-form census.

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