Want to know who the biggest user of census data is? Government. To understand what services are needed, where problems or opportunities arise, or how a region is changing depends on having accurate data. The federal government, but also the provincial and, most importantly, local governments use Statistics Canada’s data every day to find ways to save taxpayers money, improve services and make plans. Now, at the very moment that governments are finding new ways to use this information more effectively than ever before, it is being cut off.
This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda).
I wrote this on July 6th at the very beginning of the census scandal. What’s amazing is the short period of time it took for it to take on reality.
This week in a trainwreck of a press conference that pretty much every media outlet (save the ever loyal National Post) has mocked, Stockwell Day showed what the world of post-evidence based public policy will look like.
And what does it look like? Like a $5.1-billion a year increase in spending on prisons for a country with a declining crime rate in which 94% of Canadians survey feel safe.
Here is a scheme that only becomes defensible once you get rid of the evidence. Why? Because once you do that you can just make stuff up. Which is pretty much what the minister did. Take a look at John Geddes beautiful article which outlines how the Minister mislead the public about jail terms for criminals who conduct home invasions (they’ve gotten longer, not shorter).
Of course, for Conservatives the whole reason for getting rid of the census was that it was supposed to curtail big government. Stephen Taylor – Conservative blogger and cheerleader – says as much in his National Post Column. The beginning of the end of the Canadian welfare state. What was his line? “If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander.” It took about 9 days to disprove that thesis. A $5.1-billion dollar a year increase to create prison capacity for a falling crime rate is the case in point. Turns out even if you can’t measure it you can still do something about it. Just badly.
This isn’t the end of big government. It isn’t even the end of pandering governments. It’s just the beginning of blind government.
As an aside the people who should be most scared about this are the provincial governments. They just got made blind and didn’t even ask for it. It is also obvious that the Feds are going to push all sorts of spending on to them (like on prisons) that they didn’t ask for and don’t need. If they were smart, the provinces that have spoken out on the census (all of them except Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan) should announce they will conduct an independent census using the long form. This way they’ll actually have data to push back against the (now blind) federal government with. Better still, the provinces could license the aggregate data to make it free for everyone… except the feds, who when they come asking for the data (which of course they will) can be charge a big fat licensing fee. Perhaps a post worth fleshing out.