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A Long Percent. (IMAGES.COM)
A Long Percent. (IMAGES.COM)

Jeffrey Simpson

PM's census policy senseless but great for the party Add to ...

Last fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided his government would oppose the mandatory long-form census. Since then, nothing has changed his mind. His right-wing ideology and political instinct combined to make a policy that's being denounced by almost every leading institution and commentator in Canada.

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His decision was also opposed inside the government by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who's responsible for Statistics Canada, the agency that administers the census.

Both wrote to the Prime Minister, underscoring the importance of the mandatory long-form census to compile the most accurate statistics on which so much public policy and private-sector decision-making depends. The issue went back and forth inside the government, but, as with everything in Mr. Harper's Ottawa, the Prime Minister decides.

His is a government in which most ministers are reduced to silence, except for those kept on short leashes, and in which everything, down to astonishingly small details, are decided by the Prime Minister, and only by him. His mind can be changed, but only occasionally and usually only after the passage of time between his initial decision and a new one. In this instance, despite internal discussion, his initial decision has stuck.

Mr. Clement, accordingly, has been reduced to a pathetic excuse for a minister, peddling arguments he knows are false, having failed to convince the Boss of why the long-form census made sense. He says privacy concerns drive the decision, when he knows there are provisions in the legislation preventing answers from being linked to the person giving them. He knows, too, that neither the privacy commissioner nor the committee that crossed the country studying what should be in the census heard complaints about long-form privacy concerns.

Mr. Clement, therefore, is driven to making up arguments that claim people are concerned about their privacy, but they don't say so publicly. This shows the depths that a minister, himself a career politician, has to go to abase himself in order to keep his job and remain on the good side of the Boss.

Predictably, too, the Prime Minister's Office has launched a counteroffensive, with nasty attacks on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. This reaction is utterly typical of Mr. Harper: When almost the entire country - the business community, the trade unions, the leading statisticians, editorialists, policy institutes, even the commissioner of official languages - is against you, forget substance and facts and just launch a furious partisan counterattack against your opponents.

What's the point of all this, politically? There hasn't been a hue and cry in years past about the fact that a fifth of Canadians have been required to fill out the long-form census. Past governments of both political stripes, like governments throughout the Western world, do something like this, and it's one of the reasons why Statistics Canada is regarded internationally as one of the very best statistical agencies in the world.

The Conservative caucus wasn't on the warpath about this; the country's right-wing media were silent. Past census questions over language, ethnicity or gender had sparked occasional controversies, but not the mandatory form. No, this sprang from Mr. Harper's ideological core conviction about Big Government and, more important, a tactical political sense that here was an issue that could activate his party's populist base - that could galvanize the core with bogus but potent arguments about the perils of the "nanny state," the "elites," the "bureaucrats," the same sort of people who connive to take away your guns, raise your taxes and threaten your liberties, against whom only the Harper government stands resolute. Once in a while, the base needs to be served, and here was an issue that could be manufactured to serve it.

There was another explanatory factor: the Conservatives' oft-displayed disregard, even contempt, for "expert" information and analysis. When it comes to their core ideology, or policy positions they think will win political gain, no facts, no expert opinions, no learned arguments from inside or outside the government will deter them. The "experts" are disregarded inside the system and condemned as "elitists" or worse outside the government.

From consumption tax to foreign policy, from "tough on crime" to social policy, the Conservatives almost delight in ignoring what people experienced in the field have to say. Facts that don't fit ideology or partisan gain are distinctly unwelcome.

Having the very best statistical information available ought to be of commanding importance to any government (and society), but not this government, given its ideology and overall attitude toward information.

 

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