Ignorance prevails in census decision-making

It is not rare to see the government emitting complete and total ignorance about a topic on which it has crafted public policy.

It is, however, exceedingly rare to have so many different groups from across the political spectrum united to oppose a government action as with the abandonment of the mandatory long-form census.

This change is opposed by evangelical organizations that are united with business leaders, social activists, university professors and municipal and provincial governments.

Two weeks ago Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the government would make the long-form census voluntary due to concerns expressed by certain citizens that it was intrusive. This move was not done in consultation with the numerous stakeholder groups that use the census and was not recommended by Statistics Canada.

Why the outrage?

By making the survey voluntary it has been said that the sample size will be skewed against visible minority groups and the poor, two groups that are less likely to participate.

There is evidence to suggest this is the case with the census. The United States underwent a trial of a voluntary census in 2003 and participation rates of Blacks and Hispanics dropped to 20 per cent. The US Census Bureau subsequently deemed the sample too small for statistical validity.

While the effects of non-response are not completely understood, there is at least a very significant risk that the sample could be skewed. This is why Statistics Canada preferred scrapping the long-form census entirely, if the government insisted on drastic changes, instead of making it voluntary.

The voodoo statistic espoused by Clement that increasing the sample somehow corrects the sample distribution is utter nonsense. Increasing the sample size makes a skewed sample even worse.

Aside from the government’s ignorance surrounding the statistical validity of the census change, what about the government’s claim that they have received numerous complaints about privacy from constituents? The Privacy Commissioner wasn’t consulted on the change, and if she was she would have told them three complaints had been received in 10 years.
According to the Conservatives, “ordinary Canadians” do not complain to the Privacy Commissioner. Maxime Bernier claimed thousands of emails were sent to his MP’s office after the last census when he was Industry Minister. Mysteriously, every single one of these emails has vanished.

Having worked in the office of a Member of Parliament I can tell you correspondence is kept and tracked for political purposes to identify issues and voter support for election campaigns. This is consistent amongst all political parties. For Bernier to suggest all of these emails were lost means they either did not exist, or not in a sufficient quantity to supposedly justify the policy change.

The privacy argument is a red herring for other reasons as well. If Bernier was so concerned about the privacy violations of the census, one of which happened under his watch, he would have set the terms of reference for the post-census review to address privacy concerns. The fact he didn’t do so indicates privacy was not a concern at all.

People have to routinely fill out personal information to the government for any number of reasons. The oft mentioned “number of bathrooms” question that symbolizes the census’s intrusiveness (which actually isn’t in the long-form) appears on property tax forms, which are not anonymous. Filing taxes is intrusive and time intensive, especially since the government has complicated the tax code with numerous useless tax credits. I suppose we should scrap it as well.

The census is an important tool for business, governments and NGOs. It allows governments to know fully the characteristics of a public for delivering programs. It allows NGOs and charities to properly target aid to the most vulnerable and gather research to form policy proposals. It gives all groups an effective baseline to correct their own survey research to ensure the samples distribute properly.

There is no incentive or ability for the private sector to conduct a survey of a similar scope. It requires resources that most groups do not have and there is no immediate return on investment for business. The government has a role in collecting the census and making the data accessible to all.

It is important for Canadians to recognize that this research is in the aggregate; Statistics Canada rigorously protects individual privacy and ensures responses are anonymous. For the government and proponents of the measure to imply otherwise is a flat out lie.

Reforms can be made to accommodate privacy concerns. The questionnaire can have the most intrusive questions removed, and a simple fine can be levied instead of threat of jail time (even though no one has actually gone to jail for refusing to fill it out). Census workers can be trained better and have stricter guidelines on how to treat citizens during survey collection. A reasonable balance can be struck without compromising the validity of the census and spending an extra 40 million dollars to do it.

Unfortunately, this government has no interest in balance.

It is a sad day when paranoid shut-ins who wear tin foil hats and dodge imaginary government surveillance satellites can drive a government to destroy the flagship program of a premier research institution. It is a sad day when our leaders operate in ignorance of not only basic statistical principles, but also how governments and businesses operate.

Our Prime Minister needs his masters degree in economics revoked. I recommend he comes to Laurier where we have a great business and economics program, with a strong reputation in statistical research. I know a few professors who are surely eager to give him a lesson or two.

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