The Census Long Form: Different Messages from Politicians and Public Servants

The census issue not only refuses to go away but during the last week has become more contentious. While more and more voices are calling more loudly for retaining the mandatory long form, the government is sticking more adamantly with the voluntary form.

StatsCan is doing what public servants should be doing. They have accepted the government’s marching orders, but have indicated that to get a good picture of the population, they will have to send the form to a higher percentage of the population (one in three rather than one in five) and mount an advertising campaign. So we have the immediate irony, as we enter a period of fiscal constraint, that the voluntary long form will cost more than the compulsory long form.

Beyond the irony is a paradox. The politicians, most notably Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is carrying the can on this issue, continue to pander to the anti-government sentiment of their core supporters, telling us that the long census form is an element of the nanny state. In response to the retort that there have been only a handful of objections to the Privacy Commissioner, Clement is undermining that office by saying that people don’t think it is really independent, because it is only an arm of government. And Clement is also trashing the idea of public consultation, saying that the government was under no obligation to consult with organized interest groups that use the census.

When the Census happens next year, the advertising campaign will have to tell us why it is a good idea, even a patriotic duty, for those who get the long form to complete it, which will be exactly the opposite of Clement’s message.

Think for a minute about different instances when we give the government information. Generally, it is part of a transaction undertaken for another purpose. For example – and this was the subject of previous posts – to get a Nexus card, I had to provide lots of information, include the biometrics of an iris scan. But the quid pro quo was that I got the card. When we pay income tax, we provide lots of information, and the information allows the government to check whether we are meeting our obligations. In the case of the Census, there is no transaction involved, no immediate benefit. We provide the information – privacy-protected – so that the government can use it to design public policies that at some future date may benefit us.

How will this issue play out politically over the next few months? The Liberals appear to be getting interested in it, especially because it is one of the few where a clear principled difference can be made between them and the Conservatives. Will the NDP and Bloc support them, hence making it a test of confidence? Prime Minister Harper has said nothing, letting Tony Clement take the heat. Sooner or later, say Question Period when the House of Commons resumes in the fall, he will be drawn into it.

Finally, if the government persists with its position, next spring we will hear the advertising campaign and its message will be diametrically opposed to the Government’s. Will the Conservatives attempt to remain silent while the ads run? Certainly the Opposition will point out the contradiction between what the advertising campaign is saying and what the Government said previously. Conclusion: this is an originally technical issue that, having now been politicized, will continue to play for some time. Just watch.

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