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From census to wireless, a lesson in intransigence

The release of Statistics Canada's National Household Survey this week reminded Canadians of one of the saddest yet most revealing characteristics of the Harper government: intransigence driven by ideology.

For a very long time, and for very good reasons, a long-form survey was mandatory for citizens. Making it mandatory heightened the reliability of the results depended on by so many institutions and analysts. The mandatory survey helped Statistics Canada maintain its worldwide reputation for excellence.

Suddenly, however, it struck Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the mandatory answering of questions represented an unacceptable intrusion on liberty and privacy. No matter that the greater good required mandatory participation; ideology and a political appeal to his party's core supporters required scrapping mandatory participation.

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There had been no warning of the Prime Minister's thinking. Even the tub-thumpers of the political right hadn't previously found much to complain about with the mandatory survey. Conservative MPs had to admit that, no, constituents hadn't been asking about it. Prime ministerial fiat turned a complete non-issue into a national one.

The Canada-wide reaction was as close to unanimous as possible. More than 200 groups and prominent citizens schooled in public policy publicly objected, whereas only three supported the change – these being among the hardy perennials of the far right. Seldom in recent memory has civic society been arrayed so firmly against a government decision.

To no avail. The Prime Minister had made up his mind. The word went out from the Conservative propaganda machine that liberties were being threatened. Conservative MPs were given their talking points. Not even the honourable resignation of Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh, whose words had been shamelessly twisted by then-industry minister Tony Clement, could halt the destruction of the gold-standard survey and its replacement with a bronze-plated one.

Statistics Canada reported this week that some of the results from the latest survey, the voluntary one, are "not comparable" with previous surveys. This admission is devastating for those who try to analyze what has been happening in Canadian society over time.

What did the census affair demonstrate? Prime ministerial diktat to be sure, since the decision came from the very top and nowhere else. The kowtowing of ministers and MPs to prime ministerial power – not for the first time, and not only in this government. A disregard for the best scientific evidence. But most revealing, a fierce determination to proceed in the face of overwhelming opposition.

The issues and dynamics are different, but you can see this same attitude at work in the government's approach to telecommunications competition. It's very much a "them-against-us" mentality. Cross the government publicly and you land on the "enemies list," which is where the Big Three telcos – Rogers, Bell and Telus – now find themselves.

That the government's repeated attempts to open up the wireless market to more competition have failed, and that the latest gambit to interest Verizon to enter Canada flopped, is irrelevant.

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The telcos were frightened by the possible arrival of the U.S. behemoth. They took on the government with full-page newspaper ads, their executives made public statements damning the government and tried by every means to stir up public opposition to Verizon's possible entry into the Canadian market on excessively favourable terms.

One presumes that most Canadians don't get riled up about census surveys, but they do about wireless. Rightly or wrongly, citizens feel the Big Three's rates are too high and the conditions they impose on users unfair.

Knowing this, the government made introducing more competition the core of its policy. Even though it has largely failed, and even though Verizon says it has no interest in Canada, you can bet every dollar you have that the government won't forget the hostility of the Big Three.

During the weeks of public squabbling, the Conservative propaganda machine was pumping out messages to members about taking on the telcos. Now the Industry Department (i.e. you, the taxpayer) is running ads countering what it insists are misrepresentations by the Big Three.

The government has lost one battle against the telcos with Verizon's disclaimer of interest. One lost battle, however, does not mean the war is over.

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