Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lies, Tony Clement, and Statistics

Canada's Conservatives have been trying to turn the Conservative Party into The Northern Tea Party, but unfortunately for them, Canadians do not tend to polorize along idiologial fracture lines as easily as do people in the US. Therefore, "Red Meat Treats," such as the Harper Government's decision to reward the Social Conservatives of the Prairie Provinces has rather backfired. (When only Alberta fails to disagree with you, in a conditional sort of way, it's not exactly a sign of broad consensus support.)
The Alberta government, however, said it backs the move, but wants to see details about how the quality and availability of data will be maintained – particularly so that it can still be compared to past records.
“We don't have a problem with removing threat of prosecution for the long form. We really don't. Quite frankly, it seems kind of heavy-handed,” said Cam Hantiuk, spokesman for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. 
And I'd agree with that. But it does go rather farther than that. It's not just making it voluntary. It's changes in the sampling rate, and also changes in what data is being gathered - and with little to tell me (or more importantly, the people with direct need for the data in order to plan budgets) what public good might be served. 

You see, we really do like having facts at hand when making decisions. And the Census - well that's the entire point to the damn thing. Of course, it does bring with it the possibility of providing demographic and economic information regarding government policies that a particular government might devoutly prefer to disavow.

But that's the entire point to the damn thing. Inconvenient truths. 

We have considerable aversion to autocratic and whimsical decision making, particularly when major stakeholders in the process and the results are pointedly ignored. The Globe and Mail (Canada's Grey Lady of Journalism, generally reliable in it's support of moderate conservatism,) grilled Industry Minister Tony Clement regarding the logic behind it. It's not in the least deferential. 

Q: Since then, has that belief been challenged? Has Statistics Canada given you any reason to believe they are not happy or not satisfied with this?
A: I think it's clear there are some bureaucrats in StatsCan who are not happy with this. It's obviously clear because they are speaking to media. That's my evidence: they're speaking to media. They haven't spoken to me but that's not necessarily where they would go to speak.
Q: So has Mr. Sheikh or the people speak to you from Statscan raised objections to abandoning the mandatory long form?
A: I think I will stand by my earlier statement. We were having a dialogue where they were perfectly willing to go ahead [with a mandatory form] -- if they had not had the dialogue with us -- with the status quo. Why would they not? But, again, we had this dialogue and I am entitled to believe that when a deputy minister -- in this case the chief statistician -- gives me a set of options, he is comfortable with those options.
Q: Is Statscan an independent agency? I am unclear on that.
A: It operates pursuant to legislation and it does report to a minister who is responsible and accountable to the public.
Q: So it's not independent like [Auditor-General] Sheila Fraser?
A: No. No.
Q: So it's not arm's length
A: No.
Q: Ok I was unclear on this. I think maybe I got the impression it was.
A: Sometimes some of them like to think they are -- but that doesn't make it so. They report to a minister.
Q: Do you have polls that show a majority of Canadian support this?
A: I haven't seen any. Maybe there is somewhere, but I haven't seen it. That was not the basis of the decision.
Q: Is there tension between you and Mr. Sheikh?
A: I had a good chat with him last Friday and he has been in constant contact with my office and with [the Privy Council Office]. I believe we are working together to do what Statscan is supposed to do, which is provide data in a way that is pursuant to the legislation and pursuant to government policy to the best of its ability.
And you thought "Meet the Press" played hardball.

Now, reading that, it's certainly possible to come to the conclusion that this is a rather unsubtle way of biasing the information gathered in order to come up with numbers that are more in line with what the Conservatives would like to see. We cannot know for sure, and one must not presume that this is some form of ham-fisted interference in the information gathering process intended to further ideological agendas. Nonetheless,  given the way in which Clement answered these questions, it's quite clear that an agency that should reasonably be left to operate as independently as possible, particularly in regards to the methodology of gathering data, is been brought to heel. By a political appointee. For reasons left quite unexplained. 

One does rather assume that if he had a reasonably apolitical explanation, he'd have presented it.

The consensus assumption - looking at the comments following the full transcript - seems to be a lack of confidence in the credibility of the government's messenger and the believability of his response.

That is to say, the provinces are concerned because the data may well alter the way funds are allocated, and to what demographics.
Provinces are pushing back over the Harper government’s controversial decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census, warning the move will undermine the accuracy of budget decisions and erode the ability to direct social programs to the most vulnerable.
The Ontario government is calling on Ottawa to reverse itself, saying in a letter to Statistics Canada that it is troubled such a significant decision was taken without consulting the provinces and territories. “This is likely to have negative, long-term consequences for some government programs,” Ontario’s deputy finance minister Peter Wallace warns.
I happen to believe that unless there is a compelling and inarguable benefit to change, to change our mode of data collection in order to better please any political group or class is wrong. If for no other reason than this - it will create transitional difficulties in evaluating data and projecting trends over time. It will make the overall historical pool of data less reliable. Being a sceptic, and somewhat Conservative by bent, I would wish to see a much more compelling argument for such a change than "Because we can."

And yes, this is something of a scandal. I so adore my Canada!

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