Census changes draw Bank of Canada's eye

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Bank of Canada will watch to see what impact planned changes in next year’s census have on the quality of data from the country’s statistical agency, the bank’s governor said on Thursday.

The census is become embroiled in a political firestorm over the Conservative government’s plan to change how Statistics Canada collects demographic data on Canadians every 10 years.

StatsCan’s chief, Munir Sheikh, abruptly quit on Wednesday over the decision to make it voluntary for citizens to fill out a census form that in the past asked about 20 percent of the population for detailed information.

Answering questions on “long-form” census is now mandatory but the Conservative government says that violates privacy rights. Most people are only required to fill out a shorter version of the census form.

The Bank of Canada does not use raw data directly from the long-form census, but Statistics Canada uses census data as it collects other data used by the bank to develop economic policies, Governor Mark Carney said.

“We will have to evaluate in the fullness of time, along with Statistics Canada, the impact that any proposed change would have on the reliability and the quality of that data,” Carney said in Ottawa.

Carney said StatsCan is “the preeminent statistical agency in the world.”

Critics of the planned changes complain it deprive the government of critical data needed for planning purposes and accuse the government of weakening StatsCan’s independence and credibility.

Sheikh said he had to resign as chief statistician because the voluntary form was not an adequate substitute for the current system. The agency took the unusual step of publishing Sheikh’s resignation letter on its website.

The opposition parties said Sheikh contradicted a claim by the Conservatives that StatsCan’s staff agreed the voluntary system would work, and they accused the government of damaging the agency’s credibility.

“Tony Clement does not have a fig leaf of credibility to hide behind,” New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said a news conference in Ottawa, referring to the industry minister. StatsCan is part of his ministry.

The quality and independence of government statistics has become an issue in Europe, where Greece was forced to revamp and give more independence to its statistic agency, which had lost credibility in the eyes of foreign lenders.

Reporting by Ka Yan Ng, Jennifer Kwan. Writing by Allan Dowd, Editing by Frank McGurty