Canada 2020

Debating in the Dark Ages

July 16, 2010

by Phil DeMont

Public policy thrives upon pointed discussion and different opinions.

However, every once in a while comes a viewpoint that is so jaw-droppingly stupid that its existence severely damages one’s belief in the value of open debate.

Such is the case of Ottawa’s decision to allow people to voluntarily answer their census questionnaires.

The federal government used to require residents to answer the entire set of Statistics Canada question under threat of fine. The purpose was to obtain fulsome, unbiased data regarding Canadian life.

But, Industry Minister Tony Clement decided that the gripes of a handful of citizens who objected to the intrusive nature of these inquiries outweighed the importance of collecting good numbers.

And, in a nod to the ‘trial-by-ordeal’ crowd of the medieval Europe, Clement’s supporters even questioned the value of accumulating information at all.

“Bureaucrats and busybody meddling do-gooders need information that is outside of their personal experience, so they need statistical information(…)The only way they can find out who ‘needs’ other peoples’ money is through statistics,” says Maureen Bader, a spokesperson for the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation on that group’s blog.

One can almost see these people tossing a witch – or maybe just a woman wearing pants – into the ocean on the dubious theory that, if she floated, she was guilty.

The Canadian Taxpayers’ Bader says she does not need statistics to figure policy positions out; she talks to her neighbours.

Well, living next door to me in Toronto is an art history professor on one side and a New Zealand IT consultant, on the other.

They are lovely people. But, I am not sure they would know anything about child poverty or whether the housing on native reservations is adequate.

No one likes to fill out the Statistics Canada census. But, most Canadians understand that without some sort of evidential basis, government policy becomes what a couple of politicians in a backroom think.

Questions lead to answers

And most questions the government asks has a direct link to whether or not Ottawa should spend or tax.

Asking people how much in property taxes they pay might give a hint as to who is overtaxed relative to their neighbours.

Or asking people whether they are Eskimos could indicate that Ottawa’s aboriginal policies should be directed more towards southern cities rather than the rural north.

It is not about finding new places to spend more. That is a political decision.

More likely, the data will show whether that spending is being done efficiently.

Data as an advantage

For many years, the Economist magazine picked Canada as having the best statistical collection agency on the planet. And you can draw a link between the country’s economic stewardship during the 2009 recession and the quality of the information going into those decisions.

The United States, for instance, publishes an advance snapshot of its gross domestic product growth figures using early trade figures. Often, however, the U.S. GDP estimates turn out to be wrong by a wide margin and might even change from positive to negative when better data is incorporated into the calculations.

Canada does not have such problems; what Ottawa publishes as its GDP generally does not change with the introduction of more data.

Bad public policy

But, in one swoop, Clement has thrown away the country’s advantage.

Worse still, Ottawa has lost a powerful weapon in the fight against whiny interest groups who use their own numbers as a way to justify more government spending.

Previously, Ottawa could marshal statistical evidence to argue against groups seeking more public cash.

Now they cannot; instead, the political question – are you for us or against us – will decide this issue.

And that is not good public policy by anyone’s standards.


Philip DeMont, a veteran print and television journalist based in Toronto, is a co-author (with Eugene Lang) of Turning Point: Moving Beyond Neoconservative.

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