Not any more

Clement tidied up census message for committee hearings, documents show

In Canada on August 11, 2010 at 08:44

OTTAWA — Industry Minister Tony Clement was poised to admit to a parliamentary committee last month that Statistics Canada "recommended the status quo" on the controversial long-form census, newly released documents show.

But when Clement testified before the committee at the height of the controversy, he changed the draft "introductory remarks," which had been prepared for him, and dropped direct reference to Statistics Canada’s opposition to the government’s decision.

Instead, under questioning, he said the agency "probably" would have preferred that the census remain the same.

Opposition critics say the documents show the government was scrambling to control the fallout from its decision that Clement has been caught bending the truth about Statistics Canada’s concerns.

"The government, I think took us, the public, for idiots and insulted our intelligence," Liberal MP Marc Garneau said Tuesday. "They just dug themselves a deeper and deeper hole."

The initial plan for Clement’s admission is contained in a four-page document provided to a parliamentary committee that held census-related hearings on July 27, when Clement appeared as a witness. The committee then requested the government provide internal government documents on the issue.

On Monday evening, the committee received hundreds of pages of documents — mostly e-mails between officials at Statistics Canada and Industry Canada.

Among the highlights:

– Senior officials within government were preoccupied with how to prepare a "communications plan" to sell the changes;

– The head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, was determined that the communications plan make it clear that turning the mandatory long-form census into a voluntary program was a government decision, not one from his own agency;

– The government was given warnings by Statistics Canada that studies had shown a voluntary long-form census would produce very low response rates, perhaps as low as 50 per cent; and

– Government officials were keen, as they attempted to control the public-relations damage, to find out how other nations handle their own census, and to gather data on how many Canadians had been prosecuted for refusing to comply with the mandatory census.

The Harper government announced on June 26 it would scrap the long-form mandatory census questionnaire that has collected information on issues such as ethnicity, income, education, occupation and disabilities. There was no public consultation or advance notice given.

Clement was at the forefront in defending the government’s decision as fierce criticism came from social groups, business groups, think-tanks and provinces, which say the data from the voluntary survey will be flawed.

In media interviews, Clement, who oversees Statistics Canada, suggested the agency approved of the change and that he had chosen "one of the options" given to him by Statistics Canada "with their recommendation."

That led to the resignation on July 21 of Sheikh, who publicly declared that a voluntary survey is not a "substitute" for a mandatory one.

In the following days, Clement prepared for his testimony at the Commons industry committee.

A draft of his introductory remarks dated the day before his appearance show that he was poised to tell MPs that of the 2.5 million households that received the long-form survey in the last census, 164,000 did not respond. Sixty of those who refused were "referred to the government for prosecution" and the "vast majority of cases were resolved," according to the speaking notes.

Nonetheless, Clement’s notes said he had heard complaints about the form and the government had decided the concerns were "valid."

"Accordingly, I asked Statistics Canada to provide options for administering a voluntary long-form questionnaire, which they did," they read.

"I understand that Statistics Canada recommended the status quo," the prepared notes add. "However, the government chose to proceed with an approach that we believe strikes a reasonable balance between the burden of citizens and the requirements of data users."

The next day, in his appearance, Clement dropped references to the rarity of prosecutions.

Also, he told MPs the government had asked Statistics Canada for options but dropped the direct reference to its recommendation for the status quo.

Instead, he stressed it was the government’s decision to change the census form.

Responding to questions, he added that Statistics Canada "probably would have been quite happy just to move along with the status quo", but did not explain that this was the agency’s actual recommendation.

Erik Waddell, a spokesman for Clement, cautioned Tuesday against "reading a bit too much" into how the line was dropped from his prepared address.

He said department officials, not political staff in the minister’s office, prepared the final draft.

Besides, said Waddell, "the minister essentially did say the same thing later during questioning."

Also in the documents released to the committee is a June 24 e-mail from a senior Statistics Canada official to an official in Industry Canada.

Karen Mihorean, of Statistics Canada, wrote of the agency’s chief statistician: "Munir feels strongly that we want to indicate that the Government decides the content on the Census and also decided that the mandatory questions that used to be part of the Census will now be part of a national voluntary survey."

Meanwhile, Federal Court Justice Roza Aronovitch will decide Wednesday whether to accelerate a hearing on a request to overturn the government’s decision.

A coalition representing francophone and Acadian community groups across the country has launched the court case, arguing the census decision contravenes the government’s obligations to provide services in both official languages.

Under existing legislation, government departments and businesses that fall under the federal jurisdiction must provide bilingual services in designated regions which are determined based on data from the long-form census about the language spoken at home and in the workplace.

"The issue is about access to services in French in terms of health care, in terms of access to French schools for our children," said Suzanne Bosse, director of the Federation des communautes francophones et acadienne du Canada.

Lawyer Rupert Baudais, representing the federation, urged Aronovitch to set a timeline to ensure that the government submits its case by Aug. 20 to ensure a hearing by Sept. 20 and a decision by mid-October to ensure that there is enough time to reverse the government’s decision prior to the 2011 census questionnaires being mailed out.

The government wants the case to be heard after Oct. 19.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe also weighed into the issue Tuesday, arguing the government could still maintain the mandatory nature of the long-form census without threatening Canadians with fines or jail time by instead withholding federal services such as social benefits or passports for those who do not complete the questionnaire.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News


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