The Globe and Mail spoke to Industry Minister Tony Clement on Tuesday afternoon about the debate surrounding the Conservative government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census. A transcript of that interview follows.
Q: I'd like to clarify things. I thought you when you talked to me several days ago that you basically said to Statscan, "Look we want to do this, we want to get rid of the mandatory long-form, and tell me what I need to do to make it so that there's no downside to that.".
A: That is 100 per cent accurate. That is exactly what I said to them.
Q: Ok... But the allegation [in later stories]is that's not what Statscan said, that [chief statistician Munir Sheikh]had said that you should not do this, we advise against eliminating the mandatory long form.
A: I don't want to get into... I have to be careful because there is advice to cabinet [rules] But that is, I would argue, not accurate.
Q: That Mr. Sheikh said you shouldn't do this?
A: I have to be careful what I saying here because It's my oath we're talking about.
There is no question that we wanted a change from the status quo. And there is no question that if we had not initiated the dialogue with Statistics Canada, Statistics Canada would have gone ahead with the status quo.
But there is also no question that through the dialogue we had with Statscan, that I was able to report to my colleagues that there were ways we could mitigate the risk associated with moving from a mandatory to a voluntary form.
But I accepted Statscan's advice with respect to sample size and advocacy [advertising]to mitigate that risk.
It's also true that even with the current mandatory long-form census there are people who, despite the threat of jail time, still do not fill out the form: 168,000 of them in the last census.
My position is we are standing on the side of those Canadians who have an objection to divulging very personal information to an arm of government and are subsequently threatened with jail time when they do not do so. So we are, in my view, speaking to those Canadians while at the same time doing everything in our power to ensure that the results that are received from the long-form questionnaire are valid and defensible.
Q: I understand your rationale. What I don't understand is this: the impression we've got from your comments over the last few days is that Statscan is A-OK with this. That this is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the mandatory long form -- and they signed off on that. That they said this will satisfy everything necessary to produce a statistically valid census that is no different from the last one.
A: Right and I do assert that. When an agency of government reports to its minister and gives that minister options, I am entitled to assume that they are comfortable with those options...
Q: So you assume that is the case...
A: I think it is the case. I specifically had that dialogue with them. That if we went to a voluntary census and if we did the measures that they recommended, that we could mitigate and/or eliminate the legitimate concern [about]going from a mandatory to a voluntary census.
And I came away with the belief that we had reached a consensus.
Q: Since then, has that belief been challenged? Has Statistics Canada given you any reason to believe they are not happy or not satisfied with this?
A: I think it's clear there are some bureaucrats in StatsCan who are not happy with this. It's obviously clear because they are speaking to media. That's my evidence: they're speaking to media. They haven't spoken to me but that's not necessarily where they would go to speak.
Q: So has Mr. Sheikh or the people speak to you from Statscan raised objections to abandoning the mandatory long form?
A: I think I will stand by my earlier statement. We were having a dialogue where they were perfectly willing to go ahead [with a mandatory form]-- if they had not had the dialogue with us -- with the status quo. Why would they not? But, again, we had this dialogue and I am entitled to believe that when a deputy minister -- in this case the chief statistician -- gives me a set of options, he is comfortable with those options.
Q: Is Statscan an independent agency? I am unclear on that.
A: It operates pursuant to legislation and it does report to a minister who is responsible and accountable to the public.
Q: So it's not independent like [Auditor-General]Sheila Fraser?
A: No. No.
Q: So it's not arm's length
Q: Ok I was unclear on this. I think maybe I got the impression it was.
A: Sometimes some of them like to think they are -- but that doesn't make it so. They report to a minister.
Q: Do you have polls that show a majority of Canadian support this?
A: I haven't seen any. Maybe there is somewhere, but I haven't seen it. That was not the basis of the decision.
Q: Is there tension between you and Mr. Sheikh?
A: I had a good chat with him last Friday and he has been in constant contact with my office and with [the Privy Council Office] I believe we are working together to do what Statscan is supposed to do, which is provide data in a way that is pursuant to the legislation and pursuant to government policy to the best of its ability.
Q: So is the relationship strained?
A: I wouldn't call it that. No.
Q: So two statements will be issued Wednesday? One from you and one from him?
Q: Will he be able to see your statement before you put it out?
A: I wouldn't think so. I am probably going to do my statement after he does his statement.
Q: Is there anything you want to add? ... What is your impression of the way things have been written about this -- and the way the debate's gone?
A: Obviously it's a vociferous debate but I am actually pleasantly surprised at the support I am getting given the one-sidedness of the mainstream media, if I can put it that way.
Q: Do you have any way of tallying that support?
A: I am doing that through the Twitterverse as best I can and immediately scorn is heaped upon me because I won't give names and numbers. But quite frankly, given the amount of vitriol that is thrown at me on an average day on Twitter, I am loath to give out names without approval -- and I think that's only just.
Q: Ok. What is the point of the statement tomorrow? Why more statements?
A: I think Munir wants to assure Canadians that Statscan is going to do its job -- and [explain]the nature of what that job is -- and then I will want to assure Canadians that we have confidence in Statscan -- that it can do its job.