OTTAWA – Some of the world’s top statisticians were gathered in Geneva just over a year ago, listening intently as Statistics Canada officials offered tips on maintaining their independence.
StatsCan was clearly the world’s gold standard.
The Canadian system was laced with checks and balances to ensure the agency would not be tainted by political whims.
“Faced with any significant attack on the agency’s independence, the Chief Statistician’s ultimate recourse is a public resignation,” the officials said, in a piece of prescient advice.
With agency boss Munir Sheikh having taken that ultimate recourse, experts, insiders and critics began sounding the alarm Thursday over the future of Statistics Canada.
“Its reputation is hanging by a thread at the hands of a bungling minister and a Conservative government that simply doesn’t believe in fact-based decision making,” Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale told reporters.
Sheikh, a veteran civil servant, had shown himself willing to implement a government decision he didn’t approve of. He had remained silent as the government rolled out its plans to replace the long, mandatory census with a voluntary survey.
But he drew the line when Industry Minister Tony Clement presented the decision as something his agency had actually recommended.
Some who have watched the census dispute unfold worry that it will not only undermine the integrity of the census itself, but might also drive away respondents from other key pieces of research, such as the Labour Force Survey.
“How can we trust them?” said one provincial source. “I’m afraid the short census will be contaminated by this whole mess. That’s the fear for me.”
Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney gently waded into the crisis Thursday, offering a pat on the back to the rattled agency.
“We’re an intensive user of StatsCan data,” Carney told reporters. “The agency has an excellent reputation, probably has been for a long-time the pre-eminent statistical agency in the world…”
Observers are also worried that the next chief statistician will be seen as a Tory pawn, eroding public trust in the information produced by the agency.
Earlier in the week, a Conservative senator publicly questioned the credibility of statistics that showed crime rates declining.
Ivan Fellegi, who was chief statistician for 22 years before Sheikh and is still involved at StatsCan, appealed for cooler heads to prevail.
“It’s very important that this not go on in an increasingly hostile and partisan manner. That would really damage the agency forever,” he said in an interview.
He wants to see a transparent process to find a new chief statistician, led by non-partisans — perhaps someone like Carney, or people on the National Statistics Council, a group of experts chosen by the Minister of Industry to advise Statistics Canada.
More immediately, Fellegi suggests the government review its decision on the long census, and participate in a “sensible compromise.”
The survey could remain mandatory, but the questions could be reviewed to be less intrusive, and the jail penalties removed, he suggests.
“There are a lot of choices. No one ever said the long form is immune from change,” added Alex Himelfarb, a former clerk of the Privy Council and now director of York University’s Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.
“One could imagine sober reflection on this, and see if there’s some way of preserving the integrity and continuity of the time series data without denying some of the concerns,” he said.
“There might be a way of doing that, a way of stepping back from the precipice and finding a way that keeps everything whole.”
In order to preserve Statistics Canada’s reputation, the government will have to assure the next chief statistician of complete independence, said economist Jack Mintz, head of the School of Policy Studies at the University of Calgary.
The Tories should also agree to testing the effectiveness of a voluntary survey first, before they simply order the end of the mandatory census, he said. The United States experimented with just such an idea in 2003, and then stuck to their mandatory survey.
But Clement seemed unwilling to bend on the government’s census policy, saying it already represented a compromise between those who disliked the long form and those who support it.
“That I think is a reasonable compromise position, and I’m certainly looking forward to working with StatsCan in the months ahead to implement that decision by government and to make sure it is done in a way that was valid and correct,” Clement told CBC TV’s Power and Politics.
The House of Commons industry committee meets on Friday to discuss a schedule for hearings on the issue — another chance, insiders suggest, for a compromise.
But there’s not much time to find a calm way out. The 2011 census season is quickly approaching and several insiders warned that in a few weeks’ time, the questions and the methodology will be written in stone.
Plus, some observers don’t believe the government has any inclination to find a compromise.
“They want to break StatsCan apart. I think that’s their goal,” said the provincial source.
That’s Armine Yalnizyan’s take as well.
Yalnizyan, who has been instrumental in organizing public criticism of the census decision, points to a Tory message to its supporters on Wednesday night saying it was “unfortunate” that Sheikh would not support the government view on the census.
The Conservatives have dug in their heels and have shown no willingness to work with their critics, she said. She suspects they are content to see questions about Statistics Canada’s integrity come to the fore.
“That’s the ultimate game that the government is playing — to cast doubt on the reliability of data.”