Principle behind StatsCan boss quitting

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Sun Media, Friday, July 23, 2010

How do you like your census, long form or short, mandatory or voluntary? Or more likely, did you know about this and do you care?

Welcome to the dog days of summer.

If ever there was a story driven by elites, it’s the dustup over the Conservative government’s plan to scrap the long-form questionnaire that is required by one Canadian household in five, replacing it with a voluntary form that would be answered by nearly one Canadian family in three.

The country is up in arms over this. Well, the policy elites are, quite an impressive critical mass of them, from think-tanks to interest groups, from provinces to municipalities, and every economist and statistician in between. Add a touch of editorial outrage, and you’ve got a perfect summer storm.

But the abrupt resignation Wednesday night of Munir Sheikh as head of Statistics Canada and the country’s chief statistician leaves the government without the argument that StatsCan was consulted and signed off on the change.

Indeed, Sheikh made it clear in a very public letter of resignation that he was leaving over the question of “whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.”

His answer: “It cannot. Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the prime minister.”

In effect, the deputy minister is resigning because he disagrees with the policy of his minister and refuses to implement it.

Moreover, as his letter makes clear, he is resigning because of a question of principle, rather than for health or family reasons.

It is a very high-minded thing he has done. His own integrity would not permit him to continue and he would not permit the government to hide behind the StatsCan brand, one of the most respected of its kind in the world. You don’t see that every day in Ottawa.

That Sheikh submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Stephen Harper rather than Industry Minister Tony Clement, to whom he reported, takes the matter to a higher level and puts it right on Harper’s desk.

This leaves Harper and the Conservatives in an awkward position — they can continue to make the argument, as Clement has done, that the questions as previously constituted in the long-form survey represent an invasion of privacy. And they wouldn’t be wrong about that.

As Clement argues: “It is not appropriate to compel citizens to divulge how many bedrooms they have in their houses or what time they leave for work in the morning.”

And yet, according to all the policy elites, the methodology of a voluntary long-form survey is not a reliable substitute for a mandatory one, not even with a sample size that’s 50% larger.

Harper could wave them all off, saying it’s a matter of opinion. He cannot wave off the country’s chief statistician saying it’s a matter of fact, who then fell on his sword to make his point.

Perhaps there’s a Canadian compromise to be found here. The solution seems obvious — maintain the mandatory aspect of the census, but revise the questionnaire to exclude questions that are invasive of citizens’ privacy.

Imagine a country where a fracas over census forms is the top story of the day. Only in Canada, you say? Pity.

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