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Crowds of people walk in front of Union Station in Toronto on June 30, 2010.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Here's one way for the Harper government to change public policy: consult with those affected, seek public input and then move forward if the idea works. Here's an alternative approach: consult informally with a few politicians, undertake no formal review, and announce the change out of the blue. The government has taken the second route with its change to census-taking in Canada, and is now refusing to budge in the face of broad outcry.

At issue is the government's surprise decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census in Canada next year, replacing it with a form that will be filled out only by those willing to do so. This means all Canadians will still complete the basic form with eight questions about gender, age, marital status and relationships of people in the household. But the longer form, with more than 50 questions, will become voluntary, eroding Canada's only complete national database on education, income, employment, ethnicity and language.

By way of justification, Industry Minister Tony Clement says some people don't like filling out long census forms, so shouldn't be required to do it. He adds that the long form - currently mailed to 20 per cent of all households - will now be sent to one-third of households, so the number completing it could even increase. That may be so. But there's a reason censuses have been mandatory for centuries: Most people prefer not to do chores if they don't have to.

More importantly, a voluntary census is no longer a census at all, but simply a survey of those willing to participate. Social scientists say the poor, minorities and the most wealthy are least likely to voluntarily answer questions, which leads to skewed data. This self-selection creates doubts about the accuracy of information that is heavily relied upon by governments and companies when making critical business and service decisions.

The Conservative government's position may win it a few votes from doctrinaires who oppose any government intervention in their lives. But academics, economists, municipalities, businesses and aboriginal leaders across the spectrum have already decried the decision, saying census data is a precious resource, and Canada will be the only major country in the world to have no mandatory long-form census.

The rationale for eliminating the mandatory form is weak at best. If government policy is now based upon avoiding things people don't like, by the same logic taxes would go next, followed by jury duty. There's no evidence of a broad public backlash against the long-form census, and the imposition on Canadians is not unreasonable. The form should be maintained - there is no need to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

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