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The census: Little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The Statistics Canada offices in Ottawa are seen on Tuesday, May 1, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

On Wednesday evening, the House of Commons will vote on reversing a move that holds an exalted place in the pantheon of stupid political decisions.

The bill in question seeks to restore the compulsory long-form census. It was tabled by an opposition MP, Liberal Ted Hsu, which means there is almost no chance it will pass. But it should. This is an opportunity to right a wrong.

There is now incontrovertible evidence the Conservative government's 2010 decision to scrap the mandatory census questionnaire, which quantified everything from family income to ethnicity to regional demographics, was an unalloyed catastrophe.

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Opposition has come from think-tanks of every political persuasion, business leaders, charities, public administrators and basically anyone with a PhD. Thanks to a deliberately sabotaged census, we know less about Canada in 2011 than we did about Canada in 2006. Who thinks that's a good idea?

What's more, conducting a halfwitted census turned out to be more expensive. The 2011 voluntary household survey increased errors, reduced accuracy, chopped the response rate by 30 per cent – and cost an extra $22-million. Congratulations: The Harper government figured out how to spend more for less.

The decision to kneecap the census was transparently ideological, a rash exercise in partisan narrow-casting, and was quickly exposed as such.

Dozens of experts predicted the damage that would be wrought. It's time for the Conservative government to finally acknowledge how right they were.

The next opportunity for the House to revisit the Census Act will come next month via another private member's bill – this one tabled by Conservative backbencher Joe Preston.

It would remove two aspects that are problematic to some Conservatives: jail for refusal to complete the form, and automatic public disclosure after 92 years.

There is still resistance in Mr. Preston's party to bringing back the mandatory long form. We hope that removing the central justifications for killing it represents an evolving mindset.

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Some mistakes are easy to reverse. It may be too late to restore a proper census in 2016, but a return in 2021 should be inevitable.

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