The Commons: We talk in maths

Stephen Harper hails the National Household Survey
Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday,Jan 28, 2013 .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

And so it has been nearly three years since we, the previously vulnerable people of this vast land, were freed from the tyranny of the most-accurate data. Nearly three years since Tony Clement took a stand against all those interested in a particularly reliable basis for understanding the demographics of this country. Nearly three years since the Harper government vowed that Canadians should not be made to answer questions that no one seems to have been interested in asking.

And yet, oddly, with the release today of the results of the National Household Survey, that tribute to personal freedom and individual rights, Thomas Mulcair seemed rather uncelebratory.

“Mr. Speaker, today we have begun to see the consequences of the Conservatives’ backward decision to kill the mandatory long form census,” the NDP leader declared this afternoon. “Experts at StatsCan have confirmed that the data in the Conservatives’ new survey is deeply flawed. It contains contradictory information and 30% of Canadian families did not even bother filling it out. That is five times more than the last census.”

It seemed here that Mr. Mulcair had decided to hate freedom.

“The Prime Minister is not just satisfied to make public policy based on flawed information, that is his goal,” Mr. Mulcair ventured. “We have been calling on the Conservatives to reinstate the mandatory long form census for over three years. Will the Prime Minister finally listen?”

To listen, of course, is one thing. To heed is quite another.

“Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate Statistics Canada on the success of its approach,” the Prime Minister now announced. “It has had more responses to the long form than at any time in history.”

It is a pity that former chief statistician Munir Sheikh isn’t still with Statistics Canada to bask in what is apparently a glorious day for the agency. Although perhaps he could be called on now to explain why a larger sample size does not compensate for changing the fundamental nature of the initiative.

“I will read what StatsCan said,” Mr. Harper offered. ” ‘At the national, provincial level, all of this information is pretty solid. It’s high quality. In fact, the survey provides useful and usable data for communities, representing 97 percent of the population,’ ” Mr. Harper continued. “Obviously, going forward we will look for ways to improve things, but always in a way that respects and balances the need for public data with the privacy rights of Canadians.”

So perhaps it is time to revisit the proposal the National Statistics Council offered less than four weeks after the shackles of tyranny were cast off and the era of non-response bias was ushered in. Or perhaps not. Possibly it depends on how you feel about “pretty solid” information at the national and provincial level. Or whether you live in Bonavista, Nfld., Pictou, NS, Sackville, NB., Dauphin, Man., Vulcan, Alta., or Tofino, BC. Or whether you think the population of those of West Asian descent declined by 31% in five years. Or whether you worry that those of Chinese descent might be under-represented. Or how you think spending $652 million for the results of 2011 compares to spending $567 million for the results of 2006.

“Good data means governments can make the right decisions,” the NDP’s Dan Harris posited a little later. “Data determines where hospitals and schools should go. Data helps provinces and cities deliver vital services … Will the Conservatives now admit that it was a mistake to drop the long-form census?”

Industry Minsiter Christian Paradis stood to offer the official assurances. “Mr. Speaker, what this government is committed to is collecting statistical data while protecting Canadians’ privacy,” Mr. Paradis explained. “Just to repeat, the survey will provide useful and usable data.”

Perhaps the data will be somehow useful. Perhaps the concerns raised are even somehow rash. But then the available data on complaints about the 2006 census might still leave questions about whose privacy was imperilled and why we now find ourselves having to go forward with “pretty solid” information.