Tag Archives: canadian politics

And now, the international laughing stock phase of our debate…

And now it has just become depressing.

The international media has picked up on the census debate and they’re just mocking it.

There is this priceless quote in a New York Times article:

“I wouldn’t call this political interference,” Professor Prewitt said. “I would call this government stupidity.”

Yes, the beauty for all of America to read from Kenneth Prewitt the former director of the United States Census Bureau and now Columbia University professor.

So, in the space of 1 short year our government has gone from model regulator of the banking industry to world laughing stock on policy. If only it ended there.

The Wall Street Journal – that left wing rag owned by that hippy Rupert Murdoch – has a piece as well. It opens up its article on the subject with a sly:

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire from a range of opponents for an unusual privacy initiative—making participation in his country’s census largely voluntary.

Even the Christian Science Monitor pokes fun at the decision.

Interestingly, even as people outside the country are starting to take notice, apparently the rank and file Conservative MPs continue to believe this story will blow over:

“It’s just another dead news-cycle story,” said one Conservative MP. “Most people will look at it, and say, what’s the difference?”

Ah, there is nothing like relying on the ignorance of Canadians to inspire confidence in leadership. This from a party who roots are allegedly in believing that the Canadian public has a way of learning about things and then forming judgments that are none too pleasant. Especially, when they think politicians are trying to pull a fast one.

Given that a diverse coalition of forces never before seen in this country has assembled in opposition to this idea, such a view smacks of arrogance. Possibly even hubris. Indeed, it is the same time of arrogance that the Conservatives have, for so long, claimed distinguished them from the Liberals. The kind of hubris that leads to decisions that wind up putting plans for a fall election on hold…

And yes! I do look forward to a day when I won’t write about this. Sorry about this folks… just sad to see billions upon billions of dollars of Canadian of taxpayers money spent over the last 100 years, and a multibillion dollar asset, destroyed by a government that doesn’t want reality to interfere with the decision making process. I promise this will be the only post on the census this week (barring some dramatic news).

David Akin: Live by the poll, Die by the…

The other week David Akin penned a commentary piece about an Ipsos-Reid poll that showed Canadians were evenly split about the census issue. It was trotted forward as proof positive that this was a non-issue that the press was blowing out of proportion.

Well, things have changed.

A more recent Angus-Reid poll shows that the numbers are shifting. Those opposed to the government’s decision (47%) has stayed constant but, in contrast to the poll Akin cited, Canadians have possibly become more aware of the issue and support has dwindled to 38% per cent. But dig deeper and the story is gets more interesting. Only one-in-four Canadians (24%) agree with the Conservatives assertion that the Long Form Census is intrusive and 58% think it yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.

But wait for it… even among conservatives there is little agreement with the government. Only 31% of conservative votes agreed that “The long form census is intrusive and Canadians should not be forced to answer it” whereas 58% agreed with the statement that “The long form census yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.”

And, to project into the future, things are not likely to get better. Most premiers have spoken out against the long form census decision and it will likely come up at an upcoming premiers conference. So, when citizens were asked:

“As you may know, some provincial premiers have criticized the federal government’s decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census, and the head of Statistics Canada has quit his post. Thinking about this, what do you think the federal government should do?”

the numbers jump even higher against the government’s decision with 52% saying the government should reverse and only 27% saying it should stay the course. And, once again, conservative voters are displeased with the outcome with 42% of them opposed to the governments decisions and 39% in favour.

If you are going to live by the poll, you must be prepared to die by the poll. So, given this new data, I’m hoping that David Akin will consider writing a new column about how this issue is starting to become relevant and may even be negatively affecting conservative poll numbers.

It was never about privacy…

So it is becoming increasingly clear that the census decision was never about concern over Canadians privacy, it was about dismantling the state’s capacity to engaged in reasoned, evidence-based public policy.

It is also interesting to see the government trot out new faces to give the same old flawed defence. Flaherty is now running around saying that Canadians will fill in voluntary census for ‘the good of the country.’ Of course, we already know what happens when you make the census voluntary. People don’t fill it out. The Americans tried it and it failed miserably. Of course, maybe Canadians are radically more patriotic than Americans. But given Flaherty’s new found confidence in Canadian patriotism, why assign fines to anything? I mean let’s not chase people down who refuse to pay taxes. Under the new Flaherty plan we can rely on us all doing the right thing out of love for our country.

I shudder to think that this man is our Finance minister. Clearly he doesn’t let facts and lessons interfere with his decision making. It all reminds me of a senior Bush official quote: “When we act, we create our own reality.” It’s a whole lot easier to delude yourself of that, when your get rid of the pesky facts that might show your “reality” is just an illusion. Sigh. Welcome to Libertarian fantasy land.

The good news is that more organizations are beginning to voice their discomfort. Some are even turning to social media. The Canadian Jewish Congress released a YouTube video explaining their opposition.

Better still, Canadians aren’t fools. A growing number or ordinary citizens are showing their disapproval. I think the Globe may be reaching in referring to this poll of senior citizens – but it does suggest that there are some upset people, even among the conservative’s traditional base. It will be interesting to see what happens around polling data over the coming weeks and especially into the fall as more and more Canadians find out about this issue.

What Munir's Resignation means to Public Servants

This came to me from an anonymous email address, but the author claims to be a public servant. No inside gossip or revelation here, but a serious question about how the public service will react to a critical moment.

The independence of Canada’s public service has been a key part of our governing system. It has its advantages and its drawbacks (discussed in some detail most recently by John Ibbitson in Open and Shut) but it has been important. Munir’s resignation reaffirms this system, how his boss and colleagues react will say a lot about whether other public servants feel the value of independence is still core to the public service.

Read on – it’s thoughtful:

Defining moments. For some individuals these are easy to identify, like when a promising young athlete suffers a career-limiting injury.  For others, such moments come later in life, but are no less real or significant.

The resignation of Munir Sheikh from his position as Chief Statistician of Canada is clearly a defining moment for him personally.  He ends a full career in the Public Service on a point of principle.  This principled stance, necessary in his view to protect the integrity of his organization, has brought pride to many public servants, including this author.

But this act may not only be defining for Mr. Sheikh; it also has the potential to impact on the broader public service.  The Public Service mantra is fearless advice and loyal implementation and we tend to be very good at this.  However, it has always been recognized that this only goes so far.  There are limits to loyal implementation.  Clear examples are when a government attempts to unduly benefit either themselves or their friends through government funds.

Deputy ministers (the position of Chief Statistician is one) are often faced with limit-pushing situations, their ability to manage the delicate political-Public Service relationship is key to their success (and survival) as senior public servants.  When these limits are in danger of being exceeded, the deputy minister can rely on delay to allow time to change the ministers’ mind, and/or intervention from the Prime Minister, via the Privy Council Office.  When these fail, the deputy can either acquiesce (partially or fully) or resign.  This is the theory.  However, in practice I cannot recall the last time a deputy resigned on a point of principle (leaving aside the potential reasons for the former Clerk, Kevin Lynch’s retirement).

Mr. Sheikh has attempted to set a new standard – disregarding the advice of a department is fine – publicly undermining the integrity of that advice is not.  It remains to be seen whether this standard will stick or whether it will in future be seen as a high-water mark for deputy integrity that will never be seen again.

The public and private reactions of the Clerk of the Privy Council will have a significant impact on how others view this resignation.  He is the Prime Minister’s deputy minister, who sets the tone and expectation for all other deputies.  He is also the Head of the Public Service, and helps set the tone for all public servants.  What, if anything, will he say about this issue, to the Prime Minister, deputies and ordinary public servants?  How should we comport ourselves when faced with such issues?

Wayne Wouters, this is your opportunity.  Tell us what you think, this can be your defining moment too.

The dangers of narrow cast politics

I am going to very substantially scale back my writing about this issue. I have reached the point where I am wasting my breath. My consolation is that many tens of thousands of Canadians now see this charade for what it is; that this has turned into a very, very bad day at the office for all concerned, including a few strategic geniuses who thought they could narrow-cast their way to electoral gain while the rest of the country missed this story; and that I have managed to shine a bit of a light on some of the most squalid behaviour I have ever witnessed in 20 years as a reporter.

The census?


This was written back on February 24th, 2010 in a fantastic post by Paul Wells about… the Rights & Democracy scandal. Today, the audit promised by the government on that organization has missed three deadlines and is still not been delivered. Today the organization remains in shambles: demoralized, frustrated and tarnished.

This, I fear, could be the fate of Statistics Canada. With the census (and a number of other survey) “a few strategic geniuses” thought that in the dead of summer, on the friday of a long weekend, they could kill something that has become core to legislation and decision making for every level of government, businesses, NGO’s, researchers and ordinary Canadians.

Today we know differently. With a Deputy Minister resigned, the media sniffing blood, the country up in arms and every major newspaper running damning editorials the only difference between the census scandal and the rights and democracy scandal is the size and scope of the impact.

Someone needs to tell the PMO that narrow-cast politics is dead. At least for this government There have simply been too many mistakes and the intelligence of too many Canadians has been insulted too many times to get away with it.

I hope that message gets through. I don’t know how many more times this government intends to narrow-cast a policy to try to pick up a few points with a vested interest group but I do know that we are running out of institutions we can’t afford to have destroyed.

Too… much… irony… must… share…

Okay I’m dying. So many ironic twists to share with people.

Ironic moment 1:

I think this picture says it all…

Ironic moment 2:

So last week I briefly felt what it must be like to be a writer on the Daily Show after showing that at the same time Vancouver Province Editorial Page Editor Gordon Clark was attacking me and those who opposed the decision on the long form census in his column he was simultaneously bragging about his paper’s readership using data that depends on the long form census. Yes, it really was the fun.

Sadly. It gets better. Today, a mere eight days later after his anti-census piece, Clark has a new column about rising teenage happiness levels (this is, of course, a bad thing). But the kicker? Apparently Clark hates StatsCan’s invasive survey’s up until he needs them to write a story. It’s about a statscan survey.

Ironic moment 3:

It looks like Maxime Berner’s has taken over talking about the census for the Government. He’s penned a piece in the Western Standard in which he argues there was significant public support for the change:

Most people don’t want to be called or be visited at home by a census bureaucrat pressuring them to answer the questions and threatening them with sanctions. They understandably do not want trouble with the government and when they get such threats, they simply comply. Few will officially complain to the government, although when I was Industry minister in 2006 during the previous census, several thousand email messages of complaint were sent to my MP office. (Some people have asked me to show proof of this. It was evidently part of an organized campaign, as my Parliament colleagues and I sometimes receive vast numbers of messages on controversial issues. They are one way among others to gauge the level of public support or opposition to a decision. These messages were obviously not filed for future use by my staff and were deleted.)

Okay, so just to understand. There was a huge protest. But you didn’t do anything about. Didn’t mention it. Didn’t ensure that it make it into the 2006 Census Review. Didn’t even raise the issue in Parliament.

But despite this we should believe and it would all be obvious to us if only you had all those letters still. In short, if only you had… the data. But you stopped collecting and saving it. Just like you want to do with… the census.


Ironic moment 4:

And on CBC radio on Saturday, while explaining why the mandatory long-form agricultural census was not scrapped, Minister Clement said the agricultural census is used for valuable measures “that will help farmers” and “The argument obviously to farming associations and to farmers is, ‘You fill out the form, it’ll help the government help you in your farming activities.'”

Isn’t that the same argument for why the census is important for non-farming activities? Like say planning where to build highways, hospitals, offer new services and pretty much everything government does?

The only difference between farmers and ordinary Canadians is that farmers know how valuable and important the census is. Most Canadians often don’t realize how pervasive census information is in decision-making.

There is of course, another interpretation. Maxime Bernier says the government won’t bend on the census decision to special interest groups like The Government of Quebec, The United Way, the Canadian Medical Association, the Toronto Board of Trade, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (and many, many others), but maybe they are willing to bend to the Farmer’s lobby?

At some point I think we’ll wake up from this collective nightmare of poor decision making and worse arguments. At least some of the country’s most prominent thinkers are trying to do something.

The evolving tall tales of Minister Clement

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.

Minister Clement, privacy and (un)balanced views

Just moments ago Industry Minister Tony Clement, in response to growing criticism about his decision to end the mandatory long form census (now the Canadian Medical Association has come out in opposition), again cited “privacy concerns” from Canadians.

To quote Minister Clement via the Globe article:

“Just in the past 48 hours I’ve received dozens and dozens of [letters from] Canadians who despite the adverse publicity … have come forward and said, ‘We agree with your position,’” Mr. Clement said.

“I am not saying it’s every Canadian, but I am saying there are Canadians [who complained] and we should try to accommodate their concerns in a balanced way,” he said.

Of course, the minister made no reference to complaints made before he made his decision. That’s because it is rapidly becoming obvious their were none. The Privacy Commissioner registered just 3 complaints in the last decade. Statistics Canada’s survey about the last census generated no feedback regarding privacy. The minister’s claim about privacy concerns is a sham – he’s veering on the edge of having lied to Canadians. Now he’s trying to cover it up by citing complaints since his decision.

It is great to hear the Minister Clement is interested in Canadians concerns since he made his announcement because in contrast to the few dozen he’s received the rest of the country seems focused on a petition in opposition to his decision that has garnered 5800 Canadians names (and that grows at about 3 names a minute) in the last few days. Will he listen to their voices too?

I can’t say I’m confident. Even with conservatives like C.D. Howe Institute President William Robson speaking in opposition. Why? Two reasons.

First, let’s take a look at the last time the Minister consulted Canadians regarding a decision. How about last year on the issue of copyright, digital locks and circumvention. During this consultation 6641 speaking Canadians spoke against anti-circumvention provisions and a mere 46 Canadians spoke in favour. And yet, the desire of those 46 trumped the 6641. Or how about on Tuesday when Industry Canada suddenly pulled the second most popular discussion (about the census long form) from the Digital Economy Consultation.

It is the second, however, that is more important. I don’t think the Minster is the decision maker. Indeed, I don’t think he even wanted to do this. I don’t always agree with him but Minister Clement seems  smart and even fun. His twitter account is personable and engaging. More interestingly, the Minister allegedly spoke in opposition to this decision behind closed doors. The real decision maker was the Prime Minister. All the more reason why Canadians need to let their unhappiness with this decision known – they need to help Minister Clement reverse it.

Irony, defined

So it appears that the Vancouver Province Editorial Page Editor Gordon Clark is not a fan of either the census or me. In a piece the other day (which someone kindly forwarded on to me) he become the lone person in the country to defend Industry Minister Clement’s decision to end the Long Form Census.

His reason? In his own words:

Clement is right when he says the data from a voluntary form may be more accurate than under the current forced scheme, which resulted, for example, in 55,000 Canadians listing “Jedi” as their religion in the last census. It makes you wonder how accurate the rest of it was despite its $567-million cost. For that kind of money shouldn’t those StatsCan folks be curing cancer or something?

Actually, Clement is not right. There isn’t a statistician in the country who would agree with this opinion. Indeed, I dare Gordon Clark to produce a single statistician at a university, or even a polling firm, who will agree with this statement. I’ve got about a 1000, and indeed, their professional organization, who feel otherwise. So Clark’s defense is built on a lie. But then, since  this whole debate is about replacing facts with opinions, should we be surprised?

But that’s reasoned fact part of this blog post, there’s a juicier little tidbit…

Over at Gordon Clark’s twitter page, take a look at his bio:

See that line that proudly states “The Province, the best-read newspaper in Canada west of Toronto.”

Interesting that, isn’t it?

So how does Gordon know that The Province newspaper is the best read paper west of Toronto? Well, he relies on NADbank, which produces regular reports about newspaper readership. But dig a little deeper. In the technical report that outlines the survey’s methodology I’ll give you one guess on how NADbank ensures it has an accurate cross section of Canadians so that Gordon Clark can accurately and proudly claim his paper is the best-read in Western Canada.

Again… one chance…

How about… the census! Yes, the census – including references to data collected by the long form – is mentioned no less than 20 times in the report and is essential to enabling NADbank to do its survey.

So not only does Gordon Clark wish to replace fact with opinion, he has no idea how the census – especially the long form – impacts almost every aspect of his life, including his ability to brag. Of course, if he wants to he could change his bio to say:

I’m in charge of the editorial pages and write a weekly column for The Province, a newspaper in western Canada that we aren’t really sure how many people read.

But somehow that doesn’t have the same punch, does it?

As an aside, it is worth noting that while NADbank has The Province as the most-read newspaper in western Canada the Canadian Newspaper Association survey shows the Vancouver Sun has a bigger paid circulation (by quite a margin). I suppose if you give away enough free copies, you too can boost your readership…

We want to consult, until you say something we don't like

So I really, really, really, wanted to write about something else, but Tony Clement’s staff is making it hard not to.

I woke up this morning to discover that, at some point over the weekend “an online discussion about Canada’s census mysteriously vanished from a federal consultation on the digital economy.” See the full article here with some fantastic coverage by Jennifer Ditchburn.

So what has happened?

Well, for the past few months the government has been running an online consultations about the digital economy, asking people what they think should be done. During this process, Canadians, who must register, can vote ideas up or down.

Well, since the digital economy is part of the information economy (information – like that created by the census), someone suggested that part of the digital economy strategy should to reinstate the long form census. The proposal, only submitted a few days ago (others have been around for months) garnered enough votes to quickly shoot up and become the number 2 proposal on the site.

So rather than engage the 360+ Canadians who voted for the proposal (far more than who ever likely complained about the Long Form Census) the government simply removed the discussion from the site. If you know the specific URL you can still get to it, but there is no link to the discussion from anywhere else on the site.

So, in short, the government’s definition of a “public consultation” is to say we want to consult and hear from you, until you say something we don’t like. Then we will bury it.

How are Canadians supposed to have confidence that any contributions will be listened to and engaged. This seems to confirm what many citizens suspected after the copyright consultation: That this process is a sham, and that the government isn’t looking for ideas, but that it has its own agenda and is going to pursue it regardless of what Canadians ask or tell it.

So, in summary, when the data (in this case the votes) don’t support your conclusions, the solution is to get rid of the data. Kind of like the Long Form Census.

If you want you can still go to the discussion and vote up the recommendation that the government keep the long form census. It could end up that the most requested contribution is one the Government tries to hide and denies exists.