July 13, 2010 / 4:36 PM / in 7 years

Canada under fire for changes at statistics agency

OTTAWA (Reuters) - 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 Center 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

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