It’s been fascinating watching the Industry Minister’s evolving fables around the decision to scrap the long-form census. Since the debate is now coming on three weeks I thought I might be fun to give it a little perspective to show how the Minister has been misleading, and in cases outright lying, to defend his case.
Tale 1: This decision has no implications
This was the first, and my favourite tall tale. People forget but at the very beginning of this debate the minister claimed the change would have no impact on the effectiveness of the census. In an online discussion with concerned Canadians who pointed out that the data from a voluntary long form census would be rendered useless because of selection bias, the Minister responded: “Wrong. Statisticians can ensure validity w larger sample size.” Of course, any first year undergrad student will tell you, this is not the case. Fortunately, Stephen Gordon a professor at the Laval University was on hand to set the record straight. (see debate to the right).
So the first story… this isn’t a big deal, the government has a way of working around this issue, please move on, nothing to see here… once debunked, tall tale number 2 kicked into gear.
Tale 2: Okay, it does have implications, but the cost is worth bearing because ordinary Canadians demanded it
Once the implications of the decision became obvious the government changed gear. Rather than argue that this had no implications they shifted to claiming the decision was about privacy and that Canadians had been demanding the change. Sadly, no one has been able to produce any records suggesting this is the case. Opposition MPs can’t find any complaints. The Privacy Commissioner has had 3 in the last decade and the number has been declining over time. Statistic Canada’s review of previous census generated no such feedback from the public. The concern has never even been mentioned in parliament by any Conservative MPs.
As a special bonus, Minister Clement has been nicely misleading the public claiming he’s received dozens and dozens of complaints since making the announcement (note, not before). But, of course, if we are taking score since the announcement, there are now at least 80 “radical extremists” organizations like the Government of Quebec, The Canadian Jewish Congress, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, The Toronto Board of Trade and the Canada West Foundation along with a petition of 7500 Canadians who oppose the Minister’s decision.
So Canadians have not been demanding this change…
Tale 3: Fine, StatsCan told us to do it
Once it was revealed that this was a bad idea, there is virtually universal opposition to it and that Canadians did not demand it, the strategy again shifted gears. Now there is a new tall tale: Minister Clement has been claiming “StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work. I chose one of those options, with their recommendation.” Relief! This was never the Minister idea. It was StatCan’s idea and the public’s concern and outrage shouldn’t be directed at the minister, but has the ministry. So wouldn’t it be great if they could defend the decision? Maybe make a statement explaining why the recommended it? Sadly, Minister Clement won’t let them.
However, some excellent reporting by Heather Scoffield of The Canadian Press reveals that actually Statistics Canada did not suggest this change. As she reports:
But multiple sources are telling The Canadian Press that is not exactly what happened. The sources say Statistics Canada made no recommendations and only came up with policy options because they were asked to do so by Clement.
And they say the data gathering federal agency did not specifically recommend going the voluntary route.
Rather, they suggested that either the status quo or the complete eradication of the long list of questions would be the better way to go, several sources said.
The option chosen by the federal cabinet was not at the top of the list of options, the sources said. Instead, StatsCan told ministers if they insisted on going that route, they would have to spend more money and dramatically increase the size of the survey in an attempt to get accurate results.
“It wasn’t recommended,” one source said bluntly.
Okay, so StatsCan isn’t excited about this idea and certainly didn’t recommend it. Indeed they recommended either the status quo or getting rid of it altogether. And that only after they were asked to address an issue that, well, wasn’t an issue in the eyes of Canadians.
My bold prediction on the next tall tale 4: Behold – the mass of Canadians who opposed (something about) the long form census
Having had the previous three tales exposed the government must find a new tact. My suspicion is that they will return to tall tale #2 but with a new twist. This was hinted at over the weekend by Maxime Bernier, who claims that as Industry Minister during the 2006 census, he:
“received an average of 1,000 e-mails a day during the census to my MP office complaining about all that, so I know that Canadians who were obliged to answer that long-form census — very intrusive in their personal lives — I know they were upset.”
Of course there is no record of this, and as Professor Stephen Gordon aptly notes, if this was the case why didn’t the Minister ensure that these concerns were reflected in the review of the 2006 census? It would seem that either there were not the quantity of complains Mr. Bernier claims or, as Minister, he didn’t take them seriously. I for one, believe there were a number of complaints (although not thousands). And that the Conservatives will even attempt to produce them in the hopes reporters will not read them and move on.
But here is the nature of this next tale. These complaints weren’t about the intrusiveness of Government, they were about the use of an American defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, providing the computer systems used to conduct the census to Statistics Canada. Most didn’t understand why jobs were being shipped to America. An even small number of this group was concerned privacy, but not from their Government, from an American defense contractor. So if you are a reporter and the Conservatives claim there were privacy complaints, be sure to dig a little deeper. There were some. Just not the complaints they claim.
One tall tale begets another, and in this case, I suspect we about to get another tsunami of them.