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No one should be surprised, let alone shocked, by PM's census policy

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Sylvia Ostry may be shocked, shocked, at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's drive to deprive Statistics Canada of its ability to conduct meaningful research, but no one who has been paying attention ought to be.

Ostry, from 1972 to 1975 the Chief Statistician of Canada, told the Couchiching Conference near Orillia, Ont., Saturday that "the whole thing is shocking."

Well, maybe this is what we should expect from someone who also used to be the head statistician of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and has four university degrees and another 18 of the honorary variety. But with all due respect for the determinedly intellectual, there's nothing shocking about it at all.

The prime minister's drive to drop the mandatory census long-form questionnaire is completely in character and totally appropriate from his ideological perspective. If it promotes ignorance and confounds democratic discourse, well, that's the idea.

And don't imagine for a moment that this is not the prime minister's personal hobbyhorse, whatever minister has been assigned the job of ludicrously passing it all off as, say, just a bunch of complaining by spongers who want detailed demographic data for free, now that it's unexpectedly become controversial.

No, the corporate free riders are most likely quite safe if Harper gets his way. The issue is rather the opposite. The decision to emasculate the national statistical agency is intended to make it harder to fight freebies for corporations and their wealthy patrons though the application of verifiable facts.

After all, the traditional rhetorical techniques of the "reality based community" are moot, as the lawyers say, if there aren't any solid facts on which to base reality.

Obviously, this plan should have been clear to everyone for years. The prime minister has hardly been reticent in expressing his views about our country's economic and ideological shortcomings. This is, after all, the guy who said in a toadying speech to a group of U.S. neo-liberal extremists that "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it." (As an interesting aside, Harper also noted in that 1997 speech that he sees the governor general as "an appointed buddy of the prime minister." Hmmmm…)

Of course, the policy is certain to appeal to the deeply anti-intellectual impulses of Harper's Western Canadian Conservative power-base. As University of Ottawa political studies professor Paul Saurette observed in a useful essay on the census contretemps, "while many voters won't notice or care, it will resonate deeply with certain swathes of voters by communicating to them that this government shares their suspicion of stats and the pointy-headed, out-of-touch academics who analyze them."

However, as Saurette points out, the effect of this decision goes much farther than merely appealing to the prime minister's yahoo base. "In this sense, the less available and reliable the StatsCan numbers … the harder it will be for advocacy groups to convince Canadians that these are important issues. The less visible these structural issues are, the less likely it is that advocacy groups will be able to persuade Canadians that government programs are necessary. … And the less government itself seems valuable, the more likely it is that conservative market-oriented values and principles can flourish."

As Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary's Political Science Department, which has long acted as Harper's Jacobin Club, famously observed: "If you control the government, you choose judges, appoint the senior civil service, fund or de-fund advocacy groups, and do many other things that gradually influence the climate of opinion." (Emphasis added.)

This is a nice way of saying, of course, that you should choose office holders on the basis of their ideological purity, and that you should use the machinery of government to mislead the people to advance your agenda, which they would never support if they understood the facts.

On several issues, however, Canadians have been feisty and determined to defend what they have won. For example, 30 years of market fundamentalist mendacity has not shaken their determination to defend their health care system, even here in Alberta.

Obviously, then, from the prime minister's perspective, the sooner Canadians are deprived of these meddlesome facts, the better.

Indeed, we should all be on the lookout for the similar clandestine moves in other areas by this government.

So, yes, this is appalling. But there is absolutely nothing shocking about it, except perhaps that an obviously smart person familiar with the operations of government would be shocked.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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