gut reactions

So, here is how we do policy in Canada today. Statistics Canada, a department of people who are experts in collecting and analyzing information, has a well-honed method of obtaining solid, scientifically relevant data developed over 35 years.

So, here is how we do policy in Canada today.

Statistics Canada, a department of people who are experts in collecting and analyzing information, has a well-honed method of obtaining solid, scientifically relevant data developed over 35 years.

It sends out a long form census with 53 questions to 20 per cent of Canadian homes.

Recipients are obligated, by law, to fill out the form.

The information is solid. And it is used by private industry and governments across the country to make important decisions.

But federal politicians got complaints from cranks that the long form is a nuisance and asks uncomfortable questions, like where did you receive your highest level of education?

How many cranks? Industry Minister Tony Clement won’t say. He probably doesn’t know, precisely.

But who cares?

Some people feel put out by the census. And, on balance, it’s better to placate them than continue collecting the useful information.

The proof to back this up? Clement hasn’t provided any.

Nevertheless, Clement decreed the so-called long form census is gonzo, and will be replaced by a purely voluntary form.

His office made the decision, and executed it.

“I don’t accept the fact that every time you make a change on every matter of government business, you have to shout it from every rooftop,” he told Canwest News Service.

Statisticians – the experts in such matters – say voluntary reporting will result in wonky results and, as a consequence, won’t be reliable.

Now, squabbling over statistics may seem of little importance.

But it is not.

Census data is used by businesses, nonprofit groups, researchers, municipalities and provincial governments.

It’s used to hone business plans, funding requests and to plan subdivisions and education and immigration policies.

The better the information collected by government, the better the policy.

Of course, sometimes good information can foil bad initiatives – it’s hard to justify going in a certain direction if the information doesn’t support it.

Funnily enough, in the last four years, the government has ordered less analysis from the good folks at Statistics Canada.

Research into immigration to Canada has been axed. So has research into business and trade statistics. And on our aging population.

Doing less statistical analysis dumbs down Canadian society.

It moves policy decisions solely into the political realm, away from established facts.

So, daycare subsidies can be cut and easily defended because there are no longer any hard data on the number of impoverished single mothers in a given region.

Literacy funding can be cut because there’s no longer solid information on the number of people who finish grade school.

Jails can be built because there’s a “sense” crime is worsening, even if it isn’t.

Or you end up building expensive hospitals simply because a politician thought it was a good idea – not because the hard population figures suggest it was needed, or would somehow save society money.

The census data is also used by Canadian business leaders to figure out everything from expansion plans to sales campaigns.

“As a practising economist, the census is the single most important piece of information we get,” Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, told Canadian Press.

“It’s absolutely crucial from a public policy point of view.”

He’s not the only one to think so.

Already, the three largest Alberta communities are questioning the decision to axe the long form census.

Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer rely on the information that census provides to plan low-cost housing, transportation and business development policies.

Calgary’s social planner said replacing a mandatory survey with a voluntary one will render the neighbourhood data unusable.

“If we don’t have that data at the neighbourhood level, we’re crippled,” Derek Cook told Canadian Press.

Municipalities can start their own statistics departments, of course. But that will prevent any accurate comparison between cities, said Edmonton’s chief economist John Rose.

“It’s really a question of being able to deliver, in the long term, what people want in a cost-effective and efficient way,” he said. “You just can’t do it if you don’t have the information.”

There are other considerations. Statistics Canada is governed by a strict privacy policy and, as the information is farmed out and collected piecemeal by municipalities and provinces, there is no guarantee it will be handled with as much security.

But the bottom line is that Canadians once had access to an enviable depth of information about our society.

Those who know how statistics work say this will end. The information will now be skewed and far less useful.

It’s a disturbing way to run a modern nation in what’s generally considered the knowledge age.

But it’s great for politicians.

Clement is standing by his decision to end the long form census, a decision made because of an unspecified number of complaints.

It’s a gut decision, but, in his mind, the right one.

And we’re going to have to trust him.

Get used to it.

Because, apparently, this is how policy is now done in Canada. (Richard Mostyn)