Conservatives backtracks slightly on census

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada’s Conservative government backtracked slightly on Wednesday over its plan to change next year’s census, which has drawn both political and legal fire and may be hurting it in the polls.

But Industry Minister Tony Clement said the government is sticking with its overall plan to convert part of the mandatory census, which collects more-detailed information on Canadians every five years, into a voluntary survey.

The government says the “long-form” census, which went to about 20 percent of the population and asked detailed questions about families and households, was an invasion of privacy and should be made voluntary.

Critics say making it optional will undermine the accuracy of data used by business, government and social planners.

In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, Clement said questions about the languages used in the home will now be asked on the shorter version of the census form that is sent to most Canadians and remains mandatory.

“Our government believes that this fair and reasonable approach is a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians,” Clement said in a statement.

French language groups have asked a court to keep the long-form census mandatory, saying that making it voluntary would cut data about the needs of French-speaking citizens in Canada, which has both English and French as official languages.

Clement said the government was not reacting to the lawsuit, but rather to its obligations under Canada’s language laws, although he acknowledge to CBC News that the government was taking “a little bit of water in our wine.”

The government will also eliminate the threat of prison sentences for people refusing to answer the census, arguing that amounted to improper coercion. The penalty has never actually been imposed.

Opposition parties have called on the Conservative government to compromise by keeping the long-form questionnaire mandatory but eliminating the jail-time penalty.

Clement said the government would not do that because it still has privacy concerns. “Just because we’ve solved one problem doesn’t mean we’ve solved the other problem,” he told CBC.

Clement made the announcement in a somewhat unusual fashion with a one-sentence statement on his Twitter page, and then giving interviews to reporters before the government issued its general news release.

The opposition Liberals said Wednesday’s surprise announcement showed the government was now “scrambling” to diffuse the census controversy, which appears to have hit the Conservatives’ standings in recent polls.

An Ekos survey last week showed the Conservatives at 29.7 percent popular support, down from 32.2 percent in the previous survey. That puts them in a statistical draw with the Liberals, who rose to 28.5 percent support from 26.4 percent.

Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson