OTTAWA — The federal Liberals are moving on their promise to build a political firewall around Statistics Canada, but the fine print of the proposed legislative changes would maintain the government's power to tell the agency how to do its job.
Under legislation the Liberals unveiled Wednesday, the head of the national statistical office would have authority over how information on all types of subjects is collected, analyzed and disseminated, instead of that power being vested with the minister.
Background documents provided by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the department responsible for Statistics Canada, say its minister would retain the right to decide on the "scope of the statistical program," or what information Statistics Canada collects.
The government would also be able to make changes to "methodological or operational matters" — which includes how data are collected — through a cabinet order should the government "deem it to be in the national interest."
Such an order would have to be tabled in Parliament.
If the chief statistician happens to disagree with a government order, the minister responsible would have to make the case in writing and do so publicly.
"Ideology will no longer trump good quality data."
During an afternoon news conference, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the bill, once passed, would protect Statistics Canada from direct political interference — a reference to the previous Conservative government's 2011 elimination of the mandatory long-form census.
"Ideology will no longer trump good quality data and that is the key objective of this legislation by really entrenching and enshrining the role of the chief statistician to have the ability to go out and collect good quality data," Bains said.
If the bill passes, it would also eliminate the threat of jail time for anyone who refuses to respond to mandatory surveys, such as the census. Those who do challenge the law on mandatory surveys would still be subject to fines, although the measure has been rarely used.
The bill would also ensure the agency's chief statistician is appointed to a fixed term, and could only be dismissed by cabinet "for cause."
Grits take shot at ex-chief statistician
And in a direct shot at former chief statistician Wayne Smith, the Liberals say concerns about the government's centralized information technology system has no bearing on the agency's independence.
Background documents accompanying the announcement say the agency's reliance on the government's central information technology department, Shared Services Canada, "does not interfere with the independence of how its programs are undertaken."
"The agency's reliance on external service providers does not interfere with the independence of how its programs are undertaken. It also does not interfere with the security or confidentiality of data, nor does it impact the content of its statistical programs," the documents read.
Smith resigned suddenly in September and his resignation letters accused the federal government of hobbling his agency's independence by forcing Statistics Canada to use the government's central IT system.
The National Statistics Council had made the same argument, telling the government that the Liberals' push for the agency to find new ways to collect, analyse and distribute data was at odds with the government's insistence that the agency use the new central information platform.