Canada under fire for changes at statistics agency

* Ottawa cuts work of agency, scraps long-form census

* Issue likely to feature in next election campaign

* Analysts say new-style census will cripple their work

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, July 13 (BestGrowthStock) – Canada’s minority Conservative
government is under fire from business groups, economists,
opposition parties, the media and others for cutting the work
being done by the country’s central statistics agency.

The criticism — much of it from groups that usually enjoy
good ties with government — is almost universal and is likely
to be used as a weapon against the Conservatives in the next
election campaign, expected within the next year.

Ottawa set off a firestorm late last month by quietly
announcing that Statistics Canada would scrap its mandatory
detailed long-form census, which is sent out to 20 percent of
all households. The next census will be carried out in 2011.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, citing privacy concerns,
said the form would be sent out instead on a voluntary basis to
30 percent of households. All Canadians will still be required
to fill out a short census form.

Experts said the move would make long-term planning much
harder, since underrepresented and disadvantaged groups were
unlikely to complete a form if not obliged to do so.

“Data quality is a prime requirement of all analysis …
Policy analysis and implementation at the regional and local
level will be seriously impinged by the lack of accurate
socioeconomic data,” the Canadian Association for Business
Economics said in an open letter to Clement.

The main opposition Liberal Party denounced the move as
dangerous. The Canadian Association of University Teachers said
it was “deeply concerned about the disastrous consequences” it
would have for the scientific understanding of Canada.

Clement’s office stood firm on Tuesday, saying a new
national household survey would provide the necessary data.

“Beyond the provision of basic information, the government
does not believe it is appropriate to demand detailed
information from its citizens,” said spokeswoman Lynn Meahan.
She did not respond when asked whether Clement had any other
changes in mind for Statistics Canada.

Since the Conservatives took power in 2006, Statistics
Canada has cut or curtailed several major surveys, including
those looking into work conditions, use of transportation,
financial security and immigration.

Some Statistics Canada employees complained to the media
that the government wanted them to do less analysis.

“These have all been political decisions … the issues
that are no longer being probed by the government or Statistics
Canada are not going away,” said Armine Yalnizyan of the
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The census move puzzled many observers, with some
suggesting it was linked to unhappiness among Conservative
backers about what they saw as government intrusion.

The Conservatives do not control a majority of the seats in
the House of Commons and need the support of opposition
legislators to govern. Polls show that if an election were held
now they would retain power, but with fewer seats than they won
in the last election, in October 2008.

“If you are one of the many Canadians who would like
government to do less but do it better, this spectacle risks
making you tear your hair,” said William Robson, chairman of
the C.D. Howe Institute think tank.

Robson, a member of the National Statistics Council, wrote
in the Globe and Mail that the census ensured Ottawa made the
right decisions in health care, education and immigration.

Columnist James Travers of the Toronto Star — the largest
circulation newspaper in Canada — said Prime Minister Stephen
Harper wanted to keep the country in the dark.

“It (the census move) gives Harper a solid leg up in the
continuing effort to convince voters the prime minister knows
best,” he wrote, saying “Conservatives are blurring Canada’s
reflected image by poking a stick in the eye of knowledge”.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway)

Canada under fire for changes at statistics agency