Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nothing new but the axing

Well this headline is unfortunate: "Census debate is nothing new." It suggests, as does the report's content, that the present day census debacle is actually just part of an ongoing debate that's been around since time immemorial. That the various historical musings we read in the report over the census' content show that Harper's changes are of a piece with that history, that he's perhaps just following through on ideas previously considered. That's really not helpful or entirely accurate. Census changes implemented by governments over the years have improved upon the existing process rather than being destructive, as the Harper government is choosing with the ditching of the mandatory long form census.

See this post, for example, where it is pointed out that key Statistics Canada surveys (Labour Force Survey, Survey of Household Spending) and measurements (Consumer Price Index) are going to be destabilized by the Harper census changes. This isn't change for the good, moving forward, building sensibly upon past decisions. The census methodology may have been "subject to constant change" in the past but there are no indicators in the here and now that Harper's version of change is worthwhile in any respect.

The very facts of what Diefenbaker et al. were doing in 1959 and onwards in terms of census decision-making, as are related in this report, are ancient history and, to use the word of the week, kind of annoying. We live in a complex, modern society with vast ministries that do much more than in days gone by. Shouldn't our information base sustain our more sophisticated mode of governing? Of course!

To learn that Tony Clement might be channelling Louis St. Laurent (gasp, Liberal!) and his cabinet's musings about getting the provinces to ante up for some of their "freeloading" on federal data is fun summer party trivia but ultimately meaningless. No problem for the Harper government on the money front in any event! They're actually following a process that will cost more and produce less worthy data, they're not cost cutting or looking for partners.

Mulroney's government also toyed with cancelling the census entirely, we're reminded. Yes, but they didn't. The PCs came to their senses within a month after government departments smacked them about the head. Experts were listened to, unlike with the war on brains crew presently at the helm.

So this little history lesson seems to provide some comfort to a government the Globe has persistently editorialized against on the issue. "Nothing new" is the favourite spin for politicos facing difficult issues, after all. One bright side to the history lesson, however...the other side of the coin is that only this government has dared to stubbornly wield the axe. Canadians, right here and now, don't like that very much at all.