Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"Two days to save the long-form census"

Aaron Wherry of MacLean's reports.

On Wednesday evening, the House of Commons will vote on whether or not to reinstate the mandatory long-form census. Perhaps all that’s standing between Ted Hsu’s private member’s bill and approval in principle at second reading is fewer than a dozen Conservative votes.

Hsu introduced his bill last fall. It received its first hour of debate in November and its second hour last Thursday. The government has expressed its opposition, while the Liberals and New Democrats seem lined up in support and I’m told both Green MPs will vote in favour. If every other vote of the Independents and smaller parties—seven Independents, two Bloc Québécois, two Forces et Democratie—went Hsu’s way, he’d have 143 votes. And that would leave him 10 votes short of a majority—there are currently two vacancies and the Speaker only votes in the event of a tie, so there are essentially 305 total votes in play.

Of course, that imagines perfect attendance, which is not generally achieved. For reference, consider NDP MP Kennedy Stewart’s motion on e-petitions, which passed the House last January by a count of 142-140, with eight Conservatives voting in favour.

Short of that, Hsu’s bill has at least served to highlight the mess that was created when the Harper government scrapped the mandatory long-form and replaced it with the voluntary “national household survey.” In short, researchers, city planners and hospital officials says it’s more difficult to understand what’s going on in our society—as predicted, the data produced by a voluntary survey is flawed (less reliable data coming, ironically, at a higher cost). Hsu has compiled a list of endorsements that includes the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Medical Association and has been posting expert explanations of why reliable data is important for good governance. (For further testimony to the problems created, see here, here and here. Former chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who resigned after Tony Clement publicly suggested Sheikh had supported the government’s decision, offered his assessment of the situation in 2013.)

In addition to restoring a long-form census, Hsu’s bill makes a number of changes to the process around the long-form census, including how the chief statistician is selected. Interestingly, Hsu’s bill would do something the government hasn’t gotten around to doing: eliminating the threat of prison time for refusing to fill out a mandatory census. Whatever the Conservatives’ concerns about that threat and whatever the government’s promises to repeal the law in question, they haven’t bothered to do anything about it. Instead, the Conservatives now point to a private member’s bill, introduced last fall and not yet debated in the House, that would remove the unused stipulation.

See also the CBC's report on the matter.

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