“Give Me Back My Compulsory Long Form Census Questionnaire.”
Although we are in the later innings of this controversy, I still want to add my thoughts on Canada’s very own census flap. With no fanfare the government announced that it would bring to an end the compulsory census long form and substitute instead a voluntary version. I doubt that the Government imagined for a moment the extent and intensity of opposition that this decision has provoked. This is not the kind of issue that normally galvanizes public attention and it’s not likely to turn into a ballot question – “give me back my compulsory long form census questionnaire” is not a very sexy rallying cry. But every day new voices are added to the opposition, pressing for the decision to be reversed, voices from inside and outside of government, from almost every sector of society and across political viewpoints and, I expect, partisan preferences.
Some are worried that they won’t be able to do their jobs well without the information. Some are worried that the most vulnerable citizens will be most hurt because the information on their needs will be lost. Some worry that governments at all levels will be less effective and, absent information on what works and for whom, less accountable. Some are worried that Statistics Canada, an important and world respected institution, is being diminished. The “protesters” do agree on two things: the detailed information provided by the survey is enormously important to Canada and the proposed voluntary alternative just doesn’t cut it – it costs more but cannot provide the reliable, comparable data needed. The importance of the information and the inadequacy of the proposed voluntary approach are articulately covered by Armine Yalmizyan of The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and in many articles in the mainstream media and blogosphere so I won’t go over this ground. Interestingly, one of the most powerful pieces is from The National Post’s Kelly McParland – just in case anyone was thinking that this is an issue of left and right.
So, given the deeply held and varied concerns, what is driving the government’s decision?
First off, this issue is not new. In the U.S, in particular, a number of often vocal libertarians – or at least people deeply distrustful of government - have long opposed the census as non-Constitutional and a threat to liberty. Not long ago, state officials in Texas expressed concern that they would not receive the federal money owing them because of the relatively high number of anti-government residents who did not complete their census forms thus leaving their region under-represented. The anti-census movement reflects distrust not only of government but also of science and research. Many “fundamentalists” of whatever stripe, already certain of their answers, either reject evidence as unnecessary or fear it as a threat to their certainty. In any case, the census issue is not new but, until now, has never entered the mainstream of politics.
Second, Canada is not alone here. Not only does the issue have a long if marginal pedigree in the U.S. but, more recently, conservative politicians there and also in the U.K. have “mainstreamed” the question, all pretty much using the same language of defending privacy against the incursions of the state. We shouldn’t be required by government to answer detailed questions about our lifestyle or income or ethnic background, etc., or so the argument goes.
Concern about constraints to the state’s coercive power and intrusion into our private lives is a healthy thing. Not so long ago, political and social scientists liked to say that Canada was a more pro-government, deferential society than the U.S. John Meisel called Canada a “public enterprise” society. But all that has pretty much changed. For almost a century we have seen the role and reach of government grow almost unabated – and with it we have seen dramatic improvement to quality of life. At the same time, however, a more savvy and educated citizenry has become less deferential and more concerned about limiting unwarranted government intrusion and this is largely a good thing – though the excesses of distrust we are seeing now are worrisome and dangerous.
How intrusive is the long form? We have already indicated that it is compulsory and it asks private questions – but it only happens every five years and only for twenty percent of respondents so each of us has a reasonable chance of never being asked and the odds of being asked several times over a lifetime are relatively small. Few have complained and, while our Privacy Commissioner was apparently not consulted by the government on this decision, she seems satisfied with Statistics Canada’ s current approach. Statistics Canada, in fact, has an unblemished record of protecting the privacy of the citizens who answer their surveys. On the whole, then, the long survey is surely less intrusive than say the arrest of innocent civilians in Toronto or even a machine that can see through our clothes at the airport. It’s simply not good enough to say that this survey has been canceled because it is intrusive (and, by the way this is not the first Statistics Canada survey canceled by this government). We know that, for the right reason, this government or any government for that matter will be willing to limit our freedoms, our privacy. The decision thus inevitably reflects a view about what reason is good enough; that is, the decision in this case must reflect the belief that evidence, reliable information is not worth even this minimal level of intrusion.
So is the information worth it? Let’s agree at the outset that no empirical data are perfect, that policy is never shaped only by evidence and that a critical view on research is always a good thing. But relatively reliable, comparable, credible information is crucial for efficient and accountable government. Even for those who want less government such data are crucial for philanthropists and voluntary organizations, the private sector and engaged citizens. In a knowledge economy, a knowledge society, we cannot afford to be cavalier about, of all things, knowledge.
On balance, then, it is hard to understand the government’s reasoning here. Perhaps it was simply a miscalculation, a lack of awareness of the importance and uses of the information and a mistaken belief about the efficacy of alternatives. Perhaps it was a bit of pandering to those who distrust experts and research. Perhaps it reflects the often uneasy relationship some governments have with evidence – they need it but they don’t necessarily like it - after all, evidence can challenge assumptions and create pressures to act and to alter course. But why speculate on the reasons (any more than I just did)? When disparate bankers and business leaders, journalists, charitable organizations and academics, think tanks and government workers – people who rarely agree on anything – agree on the importance of the compulsory long census for the economy, for our democracy, then surely the issue is not just whether it is, minimally, intrusive. Surely the onus is on the government to explain why this information is not as valuable as its users claim – or, better still, to restore the long survey. “Give me back my compulsory long form census questionnaire.”