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Restoring Canada Starts With Reinstating the Long-Form Census

10/22/2015 08:59 EDT | Updated 10/22/2016 05:12 EDT
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Canada map with shadow effect presentation sample

Canadians from small and large towns alike would like to count on Justin Trudeau, the prime minister-designate, to restore the count.

Canadians have gifted an overwhelming mandate to Mr. Trudeau, partially to undo the harm done to the federal government institutions by the Harper Conservatives. Mr. Trudeau could begin by reinstating the count -- the long-form Census, which Stephen Harper's government disbanded in 2010 and replaced with a voluntary and almost useless survey.

Because it takes months, if not years, to prepare for the census scheduled for 2016, timing is of the essence. The decision on census cannot wait until the Parliament is convened in December or later. The decision has to come now so that the officials at Statistics Canada can initiate planning for the long-form census.

Restoring the long-form census could be a defining characteristic of the new Liberal government. Unlike the Harper Conservatives who governed by ideology and did not let data or facts dissuade them, the Liberals should embrace evidence-based planning and governance. It will be timely because in the world of big data analytics, turning our back on data, as the Conservatives did, has harmed Canada's competitiveness.

Mr. Harper's Conservative government systematically weakened federal government institutions. They did so by imposing crippling budget cuts on Statistics Canada and by silencing the scientists whose research findings did not conform to the Conservative agenda. Mr. Harper even foolishly quarreled with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Instead of strengthening the capacity to collect and analyze information, Mr. Harper's government undermined Statistics Canada to such an extent that it lacked the resources to analyze some survey data it had spent millions to collect.

Furthermore, the budget cuts forced the statistical agency to discontinue numerous surveys that collected invaluable information about Canada's economy and its people.

Despite the almost unanimous opposition to the government's decision to abolish the long-form census, the Harper government proceeded with the decision. The Conservatives' excuse to abolish the census was a red herring under the guise of safeguarding individuals' rights to privacy. When forced to reveal how many constituents had in fact objected to the mandatory census, the Conservatives could produce only a handful of discontents.

Statistics Canada is one federal institution that impacts the productivity of all other departments in federal, provincial and municipal governments. It collects, analyzes and disseminates information on the socio-economic well-being of Canadians. Without the valuable information it collects, businesses will struggle to define their competitive advantage, and governments will not know what policies are more effective in improving the welfare of Canadians.

The voluntary National Household Survey, which replaced the mandatory long-form census, generated junk data. In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, academics from the University of Toronto warned others not to use the data because of its poor quality resulting from a much higher non-response rate than was the case with the census in the past.

In fact, had Statistics Canada maintained its previous higher standards for data quality, which were relaxed for the 2011 Survey, data for hundreds of smaller municipalities would not have been released, leaving citizens and their representatives in the dark.

To add insult to injury, the voluntary survey cost taxpayers millions more to collect data that was significantly inferior in quality than the mandatory census.

Unlike other policy decisions that await Mr. Trudeau, reinstating the census is straightforward because of the overall consensus around it. I believe a quick poll of the provincial Premiers, presidents of the universities and large Canadian banks and mayors of the municipal governments would reveal that an overwhelming majority -- almost bordering on a hundred per cent consensus -- would favour restoring the long-form Census.

Fortunately for Mr. Trudeau, a former Liberal MP from Kingston, Ontario, Ted Hsu, already did the hard work of putting together a bill to restore the long-form census and implement administrative changes to protect civil servants, especially the Chief Statistician, in making technical decisions based on evidence and best practices. Mr. Hsu's bill was defeated by the knowledge-averse Harper Conservatives. A new Parliament can resurrect the same or a similar bill to reverse the harm done by the Conservatives.

Waiting for the Parliament to reconvene in December or later to discuss the new census might not leave enough time for proper planning and implementation. Some would argue that it may already be too late. Still, a decision has to be made. A clear directive from the prime minister-designate now should be sufficient to move the state's machinery to plan for the Census next year so that we can harness the power of big data analytics to improve the socio-economic well-being of Canadians.

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