Monday, July 26, 2010

Stand up and be counted..or not, it's now your call

Here we are in the last days of July, a time when politics would normally take a back seat to BBQ's and holidays. So raise your hand and let me know if you are surprised that the debate on the long-form census has become such a big story.

As you raise your hand, please be sure to also indicate:

- your sex
- age
- mother tongue
- household income
- level of education
- how many pets you have
- what side of the bed you sleep on

What's that? You don't have to answer these intrusive questions anymore? You say you've been saved from this Big Brother-esque invasion of your privacy? Let's talk about this for a moment.

The issue that has unfolded over the past 2 weeks has been well-documented, so I won't rehash it all here. Briefly, numerous groups have criticized the decision made by the government, arguing that without the information provided through the long-form census the public policy process will be undermined; that decisions would be made absent key statistical evidence.

The government's decision was apparently made despite the advice provided by Statistics Canada, and subsequent government spin has resulted in the Chief Statistician resigning - an extremely rare course of action for a career public servant to take.

Given the furore, one has to ask why the government would move in this direction. The answer apparently lies in ideology, and a belief that the state should not compel people to reveal personal information.

Interestingly, privacy concerns such as these have not been raised in any significant way to the Privacy Commissioner. This simply was not an issue that seized the vast majority of Canadians.

However, while that might not appear to be an issue to the average Canadian it seems to be an issue for a Prime Minister who in certain areas takes a more traditional libertarian view on the role of the state. For the PM, there should be limits on what the government can compel of its citizens.

Now, I doubt anyone would disagree with this - of course there should be, and in fact are, limits. However, to deprive all levels of government and a host of other important organizations of the very information needed to make sound social and economic policy all in the name of ideology is, from my perspective, a bad idea.

So what next? Well, to start the House Industry Committee will hear from Minister Clement, who is responsible for the census. The Committee has also called Dr. Sheikh to appear, so that he can provide more information on the advice the agency gave. All to say, the story isn't going away just yet.

And that leads me to this final thought. Does the government want it to go away entirely, or is this another example of a decision intended to rally a base in advance of an election? Recent media articles have raised this as a distinct possibility.

Let's hope this isn't the case. A bad decision taken for partisan reasons is never a happy mix. Now, can I have my summer back?

Canadian Blogosphere