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commons debate

Industry Minister Tony Clement speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 27, 2010.Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

Last week it was guns; this week it's the long-form census. On Tuesday, MPs debated its future - the Liberals want it reinstated; the Conservatives do not. On Wednesday, MPs will vote on a Liberal motion:

"That the House calls on the Government of Canada to re-instate immediately the Long-form Census; and given that no person has ever been imprisoned for not completing the census, the House further calls on the government to introduce legislative amendments to the Statistics Act to remove completely the provision of imprisonment from Section 31 of the Act in relation to the Long-form Census, the Census of Population, and the Census of Agriculture."

Whether it passes or not - and it will likely pass with the support of the three opposition parties -_ nothing will change. The motion is not binding on the government.

In Tony Clement's mind, forcing Canadians to fill out 40 pages of questions while under threat of jail and fines is "a terrible degradation of the social contract between the governors and the governed."

That's the Industry Minister's rationale for scrapping the census - he wants to restore the balance to that social contract. There was little balance in his arguments Tuesday morning, however, as he debated the Liberal motion to bring it back.

There are no shades of grey for Mr. Clement. He talked about the casualness of the opposition in accepting that citizens would be coerced into answering intrusive questions. He described his meeting with one census-taker, who was in tears when she told him how new Canadians were terrified they would be deported for not answering the census.

"So let me put this question to ... any member of the Liberal, Bloc or NDP coalition partners: If someone in your riding does not want to complete the 40 pages of personal, private questions about their ancestry or parts of their belief system ... or about state of repairs of their homes, is it the appropriate government response to harass them until they relent and comply?"

For the Liberals, however, it's about being able to collect relevant and accurate information. It is about the quality of the data. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett argued that scrapping the census is an "affront to our democracy," was a decision based on "ideology" and constitutes and an "attack on wisdom."

Marc Garneau, the Liberal industry critic, who sponsored the motion, felt Mr. Clement was "twisting himself in pretzels" trying to justify the scrapping of the census.

"I think he is an intelligent man. He's not really comfortable with what he is saying but he's saying it because he has to toe the party line. ... Did Statistics Canada tell you, Mr. Minister, that by going over to a voluntary system you would not get the same quality of data that you would get in a mandatory long-form census?"

Mr. Clement tried to make a joke of his answer, noting that although he liked pretzels he is not one.

"There is no secret that Statistics Canada would have liked to have stayed with the status quo. I have never made any bones about that," he said. "Our duty and responsibility, however, is to balance the need for data, which has its adherents, the statisticians, of course, and the business organizations with the rights of Canadians and that is the balance we have struck."