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Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses supporters at his annual Calgary Stampede barbecue, July 10. (Todd Korol/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses supporters at his annual Calgary Stampede barbecue, July 10. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Placating Tory base on the census causes Harper government grief Add to ...

The Conservatives offered a novel justification Sunday for their decision to scrap the mandatory long-form version of the census.

"Canadians don't want the government at their doorstep at 10 o'clock at night while they may be doing something in their bedroom, like reading," Dimitri Soudas, Stephen Harper's spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

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Reading?

But this latest controversy is anything but a laughing matter. Once again the government has tried to slip its conservative base a bone, only to see the initiative blow into a full-fledged furor that paints the Conservatives as disturbingly ideological in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

The question is whether the Tories will ride out this latest imbroglio, convinced that there are more votes to be won than lost, or retreat in the face of united opposition from everyone with a stake in the census.

The government appears most concerned by reports of dissent within the cabinet ranks. Columnists in both The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have reported that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose department contains Statistics Canada, opposed the census decision. The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson reported that they wrote letters to that effect, but were overruled by the Prime Minister.

"No such letter exists," Mike Storeshaw, spokesman for Mr. Flaherty, e-mailed, adding that Mr. Flaherty fully supports the decision.

"There is no difference of opinion between Minister Clement and the Prime Minister on this issue," Erik Waddell, Mr. Clement's spokesman, wrote in a letter to the editor.

The controversy arises from a change planned for next year's census. Traditionally, one fifth of the forms sent out are "long forms" with an expanded list of questions that must be answered, on pain of penalty.

Many conservatives in both Canada and the United States consider such forms intrusive. So the Conservatives changed the rules. In the 2011 census, long forms will make up a third of mailings, but filling them out will be optional.

The decision - taken without public consultation or even notification - has been condemned by everyone from Ivan Fellegi, who served as chief statistician of Canada for 23 years, to business and church groups to provincial and municipal governments to the Canadian Medical Association. The CMA argued in an editorial this was a decision in which "ideology trumps evidence." And then, of course, there are the opposition parties.

Critics fear that poorer or otherwise more marginal Canadians will not fill out the long-form census, leaving them underrepresented. When Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff toured Eastern Ontario, last week, census concerns from francophone Ontarians dominated much of the discussions.

The controversy is reminiscent of another one, in which the Harper government championed funding to improve the health of mothers and children in developing countries, but refused funding for abortion programs.

As with the census, a desire to placate the base ended up causing the government endless grief from an exercised public.

On the other hand, the Conservatives have been prepared to weather criticism - such as over the government's desire to abolish the long-gun registry, or to lengthen prison sentences and enlarge prisons - if they felt elite opinion was offside with the broader electorate.

The Conservatives may also be hoping to exploit the controversy to make inroads among immigrant Canadians, who are increasingly voting Conservative and who often have fled intrusive third-world governments who wanted to know far too much about their citizens' business.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has publicly insisted that he and cabinet simply chose from options provided by Statistics Canada, which assured the minister the new approach would reproduce results as reliably as the old.

But unless and until chief statistician Munir Sheikh is made available for extensive questioning, it's really just the minister's word against everyone else's.

That opportunity would come sooner than later, if a former industry minister has his way. Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who lost cabinet rank over a girlfriend and some documents, wants to recall the House Industry committee as soon as possible.

Critics of the change "don't know what we're talking about," Mr. Bernier told The Canadian Press. "And so we have to explain what we did and why we did it, and we'll use the committee."

If he succeeds in getting the Industry Committee recalled, we may learn just how far this government is prepared to go to defend its new census plan.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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