July 13, 2010 / 7:11 PM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 1-Canada under fire for statistics agency changes

4 Min Read

* Ottawa cuts work of agency, scraps long-form census

* Issue likely to feature in next election campaign (Adds fresh government reaction para 9-10)

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, July 13 (Reuters) - Canada's minority Conservative government is under fire from business groups, economists, opposition parties, the media and others for cutting the work being done by the country's central statistics agency.

The criticism -- much of it from groups that usually enjoy good ties with government -- is almost universal and is likely to be used as a weapon against the Conservatives in the next election campaign, expected within the next year.

Ottawa set off a firestorm late last month by quietly announcing that Statistics Canada would scrap its mandatory detailed long-form census, which is sent out to 20 percent of all households. The next census will be carried out in 2011.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, citing privacy concerns, said the long form would be sent to 30 percent of households but completing it would not be mandatory. All Canadians will still be required to fill out a short census form.

Experts said the move would make long-term planning much harder, since underrepresented and disadvantaged groups were unlikely to complete a form if not obliged to do so.

"Policy analysis and implementation at the regional and local level will be seriously impinged by the lack of accurate socioeconomic data," the Canadian Association for Business Economics said in an open letter to Clement.

The main opposition Liberal Party denounced the move as dangerous. The Canadian Association of University Teachers said it was "deeply concerned about the disastrous consequences".

Clement's office -- which has overall responsibility for Statistics Canada -- stood firm on Tuesday, saying a new national household survey would provide the necessary data.

"Beyond the provision of basic information, the government does not believe it is appropriate to demand detailed information from its citizens," said spokeswoman Lynn Meahan. She did not respond when asked whether Clement had any other changes in mind for Statistics Canada.

Transport Minister John Baird said "a lot of Canadians find it really offensive" that they had to fill in the long form.

"I think the government threatening to put people in jail if they don't (say) how many bathrooms they have is a bit heavy-handed and a bit ridiculous," he told reporters.

Since the Conservatives took power in 2006, Statistics Canada has cut or curtailed several major surveys, including those looking into work conditions and financial security.

Some Statistics Canada employees complained to the media that the government wanted them to do less analysis.

"These have all been political decisions," said Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The census move puzzled many observers, with some suggesting it was linked to unhappiness among Conservative backers about what they saw as government intrusion.

The Conservatives need the support of opposition legislators to govern. Polls show that if an election were held now they would retain power, but with fewer seats than they won in the last election, in October 2008.

"If you are one of the many Canadians who would like government to do less but do it better, this spectacle risks making you tear your hair," said William Robson, chairman of the C.D. Howe Institute think tank.

Robson, a member of the National Statistics Council, wrote in the Globe and Mail that the census ensured Ottawa made the right decisions in health care, education and immigration. (Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson)

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