July 29, 2010
Walkom: The census kerfuffle isn’t about the census; it’s about Stephen Harper
Two things stand out about the great Canadian census controversy.
The first is that there is a controversy. Who could have predicted that the federal government’s decision to eliminate something as profoundly prosaic as the mandatory long-form census questionnaire would generate such fierce opposition?
The second is the shameless hypocrisy shown by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Industry Minister Tony Clement says he’s axing the mandatory questionnaire because the state has no right to demand intrusive information, such as the number of bedrooms in a home.
Yet his is the same government that requires airlines to collect and hand over detailed personal information on everyone who flies – and then give much of it to a foreign state.
It’s also the government that last month transformed downtown Toronto into an armed camp, where police arbitrarily stopped and searched people going about their lawful business and then—equally arbitrarily—arrested and jailed scores more.
Until forced by the courts last year, Harper’s “non-intrusive” government used all of its power to keep Canadian citizen Abousfian Abdelrazik from returning to Canada.
Once Abdelrazik (who has been charged with no crime in any country) did return, this government intruded into his life to deny him the most basic rights: to work, to earn an income, to open a bank account.
So no. The Harper government is not libertarian. It has used the full muscle of the state to walk over the civil and constitutional rights of those it purports to represent.
Yet it insists that requiring a sample of Canadians to anonymously provide information on their living arrangements is an affront to freedom—this despite the fact that Ottawa’s privacy commissioner has received only three census complaints in 10 years.
What’s more unusual about this issue is that so many seem to care.
The scrapping of the census long form has been attacked by every organized group imaginable and decried editorially by newspapers of all political stripes.
Opposition to the government’s move appears to have resonance not only with those who make use of census data in their work (academics, urban planners, bankers, marketers) but with the public at large.
By resigning in protest this week over the government decision, former Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh is on his way to becoming a national hero.
Indeed, a casual observer might think that Canadians are fixated on statistical methodology.
My guess is that most are not. Rather, it is the arbitrary and secretive nature of the government’s decision that strikes a chord. It reminds those who are suspicious of Harper why they still don’t trust him.
Most Canadians may not care whether future historians will be able to use the census to accurately track the growth over time of, say, three-car garages. But a good many instinctively disapprove of the high-handed manner in which Harper has made this calculation impossible
His handling of the census is a reminder of other equally arbitrary moves, such as proroguing Parliament to avoid defeat in the Commons.
Worse still, the otherwise inexplicable census decision leaves Harper open again to charges of being ideological—of pandering to a shadowy grouping usually referred to as his hard-line base.
Whether such a proto-Republican base even exists to any meaningful extent within the Conservative Party is an open question. But as long as enough Canadians think it does, as long as they suspect that Harper and his cronies are closet Tea Partiers, they will mistrust this prime minister.
The census controversy is not about statistics. Not in the least. It is about Stephen Harper.
Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday and Saturday.
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