Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Time for the PM to do the right thing on the census

"It's just another dead news-cycle story," said one Conservative MP. "Most people will look at it, and say, what's the difference?"
That quote is from an excellent overview of the census issue and how we've gotten to crunch time, where the mandatory long form census has been axed with little time left to restore its implementation: "How Harper cut the census strings, then got tangled in them." It's an insightful quote from the Conservative MP, as he or she seems to cheer lead for apathy. The concern is with justifying the census stance simply on the basis that they can get it by the Canadian people. That's lowest common denominator stuff.

With little to support the Harper government's position, the privacy rationales having been debunked, Mr. Harper should be reconsidering his census decision this week. It's wrong for a minority prime minister to choke off key government infrastructure by cabinet fiat when, contrary to the musings of that Conservative MP, all indications are that he doesn't have the support to do so. The census is key informational infrastructure, it's the lifeblood for any number of government decisions and planning. Likely why there's been widespread opposition in government to the decision, from Privy Council Office officials and Department of Finance officials, for example, who know what's in store without the census data.

Consider the census data relied upon here at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (see "Facts and Figures" Appendix A) as programs in support of aboriginal economic development and lands are to be examined by the government and stakeholders. Is this government department supposed to incur a whole new set of costs collecting information departmentally to make up for lost census data? You don't get the kind of information cited there in the mandatory short form census. And the voluntary long form isn't going to capture it ("Vulnerable groups, such as aboriginals and low-income people, would be lost in the new survey, while middle-class white people would be over-represented.") The stories of government programmes and decisions that will be affected are likely still to come.

Look at this story today out of Prince Edward Island on charities being affected there.

Mr. Harper has no doubt taken note of economists speaking out at the end of last week, the opposition from religious groups, and that from small business advocates and entrepreneurs. There's been additional reporting done on private businesses who rely upon the census for business purposes. Those are groups the Conservatives would be sensitive to and yet those groups are against this census move. How can the PM follow through on this ideological, virtually medieval decision in light of such opposition?

Imagine a corporate CEO of a large public company who makes a decision that will fundamentally damage the ability of his or her corporation to operate efficiently, effectively, smartly. By removing key information technology, for example. Against the advice of management. In secret from his or her board of directors. Against the advice of company departments. Against the wishes of key stakeholders and customers. It's a decision that will affect the stock price and value of the company, hobbling it. It wouldn't be tolerated. That CEO would be fired by the board, banished to Siberia perhaps. The point, that there are basic principles of good governance that cross public and private spheres and that are glaringly being ignored by this PMO.

The widespread opposition that's developed, the absurdity of the situation, the practical examples of real harm, it's all pointing to a real leadership moment for the PM. He should be listening, a key attribute of a good leader. He should be able to grapple with differences of opinion and build consensus. That's what a leader does. He doesn't sneakily pursue a policy behind closed doors, then bury his decision for months on end in a democratic country, give it the bare minimum of daylight only out of legal necessity and at the last minute in the hope that no one notices ("Pirates didn't bury their treasure that carefully," said one insider.") In the face of the resulting wave of opposition, a leader of character would listen and should bend.

This is a week to appeal to good sense, for a resolution that will restore the mandatory long form, maybe by losing the jail penalty as an out, as many are suggesting. The weight of opinion is heavy. It's time for Conservatives especially, like those speaking anonymously to news reporters now, to pressure for change, to step up at those cabinet and caucus meetings this week and challenge this harmful, costly census decision. Ultimately, it's time for Mr. Harper to do the right thing.