The long shadow of the long census cancellation: A politician's nightmare

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Who would have expected Stephen Harper to be so foolhardy as to ignore the outcry? As of Monday, 272 national organizations and prominent individuals are listed as opposing the cancellation of the mandatory long census. The prime minister should have had enough confidence in himself and his government to admit a mistake, and move on. By standing by his beliefs instead, he has created a politician's nightmare, a controversy that allows his opponents to grow support... by doing nothing.

The Conservative option -- make the long-form questionnaire voluntary -- has been described by a Laval University economist as an "appallingly stupid idea" because "there is simply no way any useful data will emerge from this exercise." As well, the cost of the move is more expensive than the current census.

Why does the Conservative decision to spend more money on the voluntary survey fail the social science test? Statistical analysis requires that information be gathered and compared over time. Analysts are looking for trends, effects that can be traced to causes. Changing the census from mandatory to voluntary requires charting trends based on two different methods for collecting data. With incompatible data sources, the results are unreliable, and charting trends accurately becomes impossible.

The Harper Conservatives have made no secret of what they believe. There are those who think that government can act on behalf of the people to better their existence, and those (Conservatives) who think government best respects individuals when it acts least. Harper clearly has decided his government only acted in accordance with his minimalist role for government views when it decided to abandon the long census.

In fact, all of society, not just government, has a stake in more and better knowledge about ourselves. The Socratic "know thyself" is one of the touchstones handed down from Greco-Roman civilization. Education and science have their origins in the assumption that, if the original human state is ignorance, we can do better. Understanding should precede action.

Both individuals and groups needs reliable, satisfactory, and full information about their social surroundings. No group has made better use of census data than business. For example, marketing depends on knowledge provided by the census.

Planning is the central function of large complex organization such as global corporations and governments. Both have created cultures of analysis, and practice decision-making based on evidence. All the opinion makers in Canada are part of this culture that the Conservatives are ignoring.

It should be obvious that putting yourself offside with people who think, write, and talk about the country limits your political upside. Conservatives who think they are winning points with the Tim Hortons-Canadian Tire crowd by throwing out the census long form forget that education and knowledge are values shared as widely as any other in Canada.

What the Harper government has done with its census decision is lose the trust and respect of people who are part of the analytical culture, the people who work with numbers and words.

Politically, Harper and his advisors think they are strengthening their appeal with their base, the anti-government Reformers. But coming on top of the inflated $1 billion security bill for the G8/G20, and the plans to build more prison for offenders committing unreported crimes, the Conservative look to have isolated themselves from the mainstream voters they need to win a majority, or even hold on to power.

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