Wednesday, July 07, 2010

On pressure points

There's been loads of backlash against the Cons' short-sighted attack on Canada's census, with the Libs going so far as to send up a trial balloon about legislative changes to require mandatory long forms. But this looks to be one case where the best course of action is to put pressure directly on the Cons, rather than to seek legislative change now or later.

That's in part because there's no prospect of actually making any changes in legislation in time to help without the Cons' support. Based on the few private members' bills which have become law over the past few years, the timeline to get a bill passed over the Cons' objections looks to be in the range of one to two years. And that's for a bill passing through the House of Commons with a privileged position in the Parliamentary lottery, and before the Cons' impending Senate majority takes hold this fall.

So there's no reason to think that the legislation actually can be changed in time for the 2011 census without a concurrent change in government (which would presumably make the point moot). But it's also worth asking whether legislation is the best way to deal with the issue in the first place.

I'd see two options to require a mandatory long form, but both would come with obvious drawbacks. A bill which prescribes the contents of the long form would make it more difficult for Statistics Canada to amend the form based on new or changing factors, while one which simply creates a requirement for a separate long form with contents to be determined could easily be turned into a farce by the Cons. (Remember how the Libs' "quarterly reports" on economic management turned into a political infomercial? Just wait until the Cons use their discretion to feature mandatory multiple-choice questions like "How great is Prime Minister Stephen Harper?" and "To what degree does Michael Ignatieff think it's all about himself?".)

Simply put, leaving the census form in the hands of Statistics Canada is the best way to deal with any circumstances other than the government of vandals currently afflicting the country. And legislative changes will either create new problems or offer another chance for the Cons to make a mockery of the value of census data.

Fortunately, there should be a realistic prospect of getting the Cons to reverse their decision - particularly by emphasizing some of their own constituencies which are hurt by the move. Sure, the anti-science Cons may not care in the slightest if they permanently gut the resources available to other levels of government and social scientists. But all indications are that they've completely failed to recognize that Canadian business also stands to be hurt by the loss of accurate information for the purposes of demographic weighting - and pressure on that front would figure to have a strong chance of forcing a change in course, particularly in the absence of anybody taking any particularly strong position to defend it.

So for the Libs and other opposition parties, the proper response is to challenge the Cons' decision directly, not merely hint at future interest in undoing the change. And if they join the business, municipal and academic communities in calling for action, there's reason for hope that this is one of the few decisions that the Cons can actually be persuaded to reverse.

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