Tories twisted census findings: memos
Aug 10 2010
Les Whittington Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA—Industry Minister Tony Clement was well aware that Statistics Canada had little use for a voluntary census when he was telling Canadians that StatsCan was onside with his decision to scrap the mandatory, long-form survey, internal government documents show.
In an email to the minister’s advisers in March, a StatsCan official says a self-administered voluntary survey “provides a response rate of 50 per cent.” The email goes on to say that, with follow-up and interviewer support, the response rate can be increased to 65-70 per cent, “which is still not an acceptable outcome for a census.”
Yet Clement publicly gave the impression that the respected federal data collecting agency supported the Conservatives’ move to scrap the mandatory nature of the 40-page, long-form survey that has traditionally gone out to one-in-five households at census time.
“We’ve come up with a way that is statistically valid, that StatsCan feels can work,” Clement said during an appearance at McGill University last month.
The new information comes from confidential government documents that detail the Harper government’s fierce effort to manage the messaging and political fallout arising from the census decision, which prompted former StatsCan head Munir Sheikh to resign and spawned a national controversy.
Previously secret emails, memos and communications plans were compiled by the government at the request of the House of Commons industry committee, which has been holding hearings on Clement’s decision to rearrange StatsCan’s census-taking.
Much of the government documents were redacted, but they shed new light on Sheikh’s stunning decision to quit his prestigious job. As the controversy over the census was reaching a fever pitch last month, Clement’s office and the Privy Council Office, the federal department that serves Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were trying to tell Sheikh what to say to his own employees about the Conservatives’ census strategy.
Sheikh intended to tell StatsCan’s worried employees that the data produced by the voluntary National Household Survey proposed by the Conservatives would not be as valuable to traditional users of census information as past surveys, the emails indicate.
In a flurry of memos in mid-July, Clement’s office and the PCO tried to convince Munir to cast his remarks in a more positive light. Instead of saying users will not find the data from the new voluntary survey useful, the government wanted him to say StatsCan “is confident” it will meet “the needs of a broad range of users.”
But Sheikh, a 38-year public servant, never delivered the address to his employees. He resigned a few days later. At a subsequent appearance at a Commons committee, he said he stepped down because Clement’s suggestion that StatsCan was onside with the voluntary census was compromising the integrity of the globally-respected agency.
Sheikh said Tuesday that, without the compulsory census, much of Statistics Canada work will be undermined. Without “the benchmark” of the census, it’s not clear that information such as StatsCan’s employment surveys will be “something that we can trust,” he told the CBC.
The newly released documents also show the media messaging prepared by the government to handle questions on the new voluntary survey entirely skirted the issue of the quality of the data. The “media lines” for government officials include statements such as “this is the first time Statistics Canada will conduct this survey” and “We are counting on Canadians who receive this survey to recognize the importance of this information and to respond to the survey.”
Details on the projected cost of the new voluntary 40-page survey were blacked out, but the documents suggest it will cost Ottawa more than $75 million. The cost in 2006 was $45 million, the documents say. And Clement has said Ottawa will spend $30 million extra for advertising and other promotions to convince Canadians to complete voluntary questionnaire. On top of that, the government will print more of the voluntary 40-page questionnaires to compensate for the expected decline in responses from the public.
Large sections of the documents were blacked out. Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who requested the documents, said he has never seen such censorship of material for a Commons committee except on security issues. “This is a serious affront to democracy,” he remarked Tuesday.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Posted by Brent Fullard at 11:15 AM