I was going to stay away from the pedantic yet strangely compelling controversy over Canada’s census, that entirely unlikely hero of the summer news cycle, involving statisticians arguing with politicians over data reliability and whatnot.
But I can’t keep silent after what our dear Minister for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Treasury Board president said yesterday.
Keep in mind, the reason the Conservative government gave for switching from a mandatory census long form to a voluntary long form was all about privacy. It was absolutely wrong, the Tories said repeatedly in identical-sounding sound bites, to threaten someone with jail time for not divulging how many bedrooms they had in their house.
OK, fair enough, I suppose. Not exactly at the top of my list of government outrages, but a fair, if minor, point all the same. But check out what Stockwell Day had to say on Tuesday:
The Conservative government says it won’t compromise and keep the long-form census mandatory and may actually consider scrapping it altogether.
Treasury Board President Stockwell Day says some European countries have found other ways of collecting data which Statistics Canada compiles by compelling co-operation under threat of fine or jail.
“We’ve also looked at the fact that with the high degree of sophistication and integration of computerization and data these days, do you need to go through that whole process at all?” he said at a news conference Tuesday.
“Countries like Norway, Denmark, have dispensed with this type of information-gathering years ago,’” he added.
Hold on a second here. The reason that many European countries have done away with the census is that they data-mine other sources for information — everything from banking records to school attendance sheets. In some European countries, you are required by law to register with the police when you change addresses. Police files, therefore, are a useful source of demographic information.
Is this the sort of privacy protection that our dear head treasurer envisions? Is this really better than a never-used provision in the law that allows for jail time if you don’t respond to a mandatory census form?
I don’t think the Conservatives’ aim in switching from a mandatory to a voluntary census was really to reduce government intrusion into our private lives. That was made pretty clear when the Conservatives rejected a compromise that would see jail lifted as a penalty for not filling out the long form — a purely symbolic move, since plenty of people refuse or fail to fill out the long form and no one is ever prosecuted. But the Tories said no, it’s not the jail time, it’s the principle of the thing.
Well clearly it isn’t the principle of the thing either. Because what Stockwell Day has suggested is the single largest expansion of government intrusion into our private lives in Canadian history. Right now we have a census that collates anonymous data — it collects info on your household, but doesn’t link it to your name or social insurance number. When the Tories get their way and Statistics Canada starts collecting data from our bank records, our hospital records, our school records, etc., etc., there will be no way to be certain that our privacy is guaranteed. In fact, our privacy, by definition, won’t be guaranteed.
There are only two possibilities here: Either the Conservatives have no grasp whatsoever on the issue on which they’ve decided to stake their reputation, or they are out and out lying about their motivations.
I think the former is likelier. This was a decision made on a whim by a libertarian wind that blows through this government, and when the issue became much larger than the PMO ever expected, they decided to stubbornly (stupidly) defend their position to the end. So they are grasping for reasons why they did this, one day telling us they’re protecting our freedoms, the next day unwittingly threatening to take them away.
But the latter is also possible. If they are lying about their motivations, then to what end? The conspiracists out there argue that Harper’s Tories want to degrade the quality of data. One argument is that, by harming the quality of data, you harm the ability of governments to provide services — a very good condition to have in place if you want to argue, down the road, in favor of privatization of government services.
The other argument is that the Tories simply don’t want to see more detailed information about marginalized communities, poverty, growing visible minority groups, and so on. Statistical press releases declaring “Poverty up in aboriginal communities” puts pressure on the Conservative government to do things it doesn’t want to do, like help people.
I don’t know. You can speculate until the cows come home as to the secret motives of policymakers and never get any closer to the truth. But at this point I am at least certain of this much: The Tories’ census decision is a political, fiscal and practical mistake.
A fiscal mistake, in that the new voluntary census will cost $30 million more than the old mandatory one; hardly a sharp move from a government that just finished lecturing the rest of the world on fiscal responsibility.
A practical mistake, in that anyone who knows anything about this will tell you that the next set of census data will be incomparable to earlier sets; Canada will be in a fog of ignorance as to social, demographic and cultural trends.
And a political mistake, in that the Tories, instead of wisely accepting a compromise that should have satisfied their professed concerns, have decided to fight an all-out war over this one, a war that could end up with the largest intrusion into Canadians’ privacy ever.
If that happens — if it turns out Stockwell Day is talking about real government policy, and not just talking out of his ass like he usually does (see Day’s claim that Statistics Canada is lying about Canada’s dropping crime rate because people are not reporting crimes, something for which he himself has no evidence) — then the Tories will have blindly, arrogantly, stubbornly and pointlessly walked us into this disaster.
For that, they would deserve nothing less than an electoral booting.
This completely slipped my mind: Britain’s new Tory-LibDem coalition government is planning to scrap the census. Here’s how they plan to cull statistical data from now on (from the Telegraph):
The Government is examining different and cheaper ways to count the population more regularly, using existing public and private databases, including credit reference agencies….
Mr Maude said the Census was “out of date almost before it has been done” and was looking at ways to count the population more frequently — perhaps every five years — using databases held by credit checking firms, Royal Mail, councils and Government.
The post office? It’s no secret at this point that the UK has had a penchant for authoritarianism in recent years, what with their huge databases of children’s fingerprints, plans to track every vehicle in the country, and even different laws for different people, but tracking the population through addresses on envelopes? Wow.
As for using “government” databases, I imagine that could mean anything from your medical records to your criminal rap sheet to your history of drawing unemployment insurance. If this is what Stockwell Day has in mind, he damn well better come up with a better excuse than safeguarding privacy, because this is one government policy that clearly does the opposite.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 5th, 2010 at 12:36 am and is filed under Smells Like North. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.