The hubbub over Conservative plans to scrap the mandatory long-form census has pundits in an uproar. The public has been yawningly indifferent.
It appears, however, the federal government will have to reverse course on this one, especially now that the resignation of Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh has given lie to Industry Minister Tony Clement’s claims the agency was on side.
The decision to make the protracted form a voluntary part of the 2011 Census was purely ideological: many people see it as an invasion of privacy, a case of big government prying into their business. They’re right. Any information collected beyond basic facts – age, sex, place of residency – goes beyond the original intent. But that doesn’t mean Stephen Harper has made the right decision.
The census has grown to the point where it provides data for a variety of governmental, business and social studies. Groups as diverse as scientists, non-profit agencies and academics have all decried the government’s plan to change the census. Information gleaned from the census is the basis of government policymaking, for instance.
In 2006, the last census year, forms were sent to 13.5 million households. The short questionnaire contained eight questions and was completed by 80 per cent of households. The long questionnaire, sent to one in five homes, contained the same questions as the short form plus 53 additional questions.
Demographic information is used to determine transfer and equalization payments to the provinces under the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act, and for programs for Veterans under the War Veterans Allowance Act, for instance.
Information is used to determine federal health and social transfer payments; to aid in the settlement of refugees and for language instruction for newcomers to Canada; to monitor labour market activity and income for the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance program and the Old Age Security; and assist with policies governing housing and education, among others.
Making the long form voluntary, critics say, would make the information less usable, as certain segments of society would be less likely to take part. Rather than having StatsCan choose a broad cross-section, the general population would in effect be self-screening, skewing the results. That would render data collected in 2011 out of line with that taken from previous censuses, the mandatory long-form survey having been in place for three decades.
While the long form is invasive and coercive, we’re told the ends justify the means. We give up a little to gain much more. There’s a trade-off. That should be the basis of a debate about the proposed changes. Given that the next census falls in 2011 and the government made the decision to scrap the long form in isolation, it’s probably best to allow for business as usual next year. A protracted discussion could then be held in advance of the next one, five years later.