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Race is on to find compromise on census

With time running out, one urgent question will rise above all others when Tony Clement meets a House of Commons committee Tuesday morning to defend the Conservative government's decision to water down the 2011 census: Is there a will and a way to compromise?

The Industry Minister testifies at 9 a.m. (ET) before the industry committee over the Conservative government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form version of the 2011 census, replacing it with a voluntary survey instead.

The move led to the resignation in protest by the deputy minister for Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, and has been condemned by scores of statisticians, economists, pollsters, provincial and municipal governments, management, labour and charitable groups. All agree a voluntary survey will deprive the census of the integrity that can only be assured by requiring everyone who receives it to respond.

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But any accommodation that takes into account the government's privacy concerns while leaving the census intact must be reached by the end of August. After that, it will be impossible to make changes while still meeting the census's 2011 deadlines.

"It's too late by September," Ian McKinnon, chairman of the National Statistics Council, said Monday. "We have at most a few weeks."

The council, whose 40 members are appointed by the government and who are the senior outside advisers to Statistics Canada, released a proposed compromise Monday, which it believes might end the impasse.

Under the proposal, the mandatory long-form census would go out in 2011 as usual to 20 per cent of households, minus question 33, which asks about unpaid household work. The reasoning is that this question has prompted the most complaints from respondents in the past, and that a separate Statscan survey already captures the data.

As well, the nominal threat of jail for non-compliance would be removed. (No one has ever been jailed for refusing to fill out the form.) And a consultation process would look for ways to conduct the 2016 census that more fully takes into account privacy concerns.

"It's very important that we try to find some answers," Mr. McKinnon said. "Time is very pressing. There's a lot of debate, but we don't seem to be moving towards a resolution."

The initial reaction from the government was not encouraging.

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While not commenting directly on the council's proposal, a spokesman for Mr. Clement stated in an e-mail that the government's plan "is a balanced and satisfactory approach that is good for people who rely on the data, while not forcing Canadians who may find the questions intrusive to divulge personal and private information under the threat of jail, fines, or both."

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper incommunicado - he has been little seen and less heard from throughout July - and with the government apparently intransigent, observers are wondering how a way can be found to preserve the census without forcing the Conservatives into a politically humiliating retreat.

The bigger unknown may be whether either the government or the opposition parties are even interested in debate. Mr. Sheikh is testifying at the industry committee Tuesday. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois could use the opportunity to beatify the former chief statistician and demonize Mr. Clement, which would be satisfying political theatre but could poison any hopes for accommodation.

The council's proposal is not without critics within the academic community. "The National Statistics Council decided to delete one question," said Murtaza Haider, who researches housing and transportation markets at Toronto's Ryerson University, "and that question concerned the welfare of women."

However, although he favours "a less ad hoc" process for deciding what stays on the census and what gets left off, Prof. Haider would rather see a mandatory census with the work-in-the-home question removed than see a voluntary long form, which he maintained would make it impossible to compare any data collected in 2011 with data gathered in previous surveys.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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