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Three cheers for a hidden agenda!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to the crowd at a Calgary Stampede breakfast in on July 10, 2010.


Among some commentators, a recent Economist article is being taken as evidence that the federal government's census changes are nothing to get excited about, because they're not a unique phenomenon.

For various reasons, a bunch of European countries stopped doing the census a while ago. And if the moderately libertarian Economist recognizes that censuses are inefficient, and have become too sweeping in their questions, then why shouldn't Ottawa reach the same conclusion?

That would be a great argument, but for one small problem: It only makes sense if one assumes that Stephen Harper's Conservatives are going about a census scale-back in a roundabout and rather duplicituous fashion - and that this is somehow a good thing.

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As of right now, the government hasn't announced that it will either eliminate the census or reduce the scope of its questions. Really, all the Tories are ostensibly planning to do is to make it a much bigger waste of time, energy and resources, by leaving it up to Canadians whether or not they want to complete its longer section.

Any parts of a census that are voluntary are worse than useless, because they're certain to be skewed. Nobody involved in public policy, private business or most anything else is going to mistake a self-selecting sample for being representative of the entire population. But a government agency will nevertheless go through the pointless exercise of mailing long-census forms to fully a third of households (more than have received them previously), then pore over the meaningless data that it creates and release some misleading information.

The only way this makes any sense, at least from a small-c conservative perspective, is if the government is deliberately turning the census into a joke as a precursor to ending it entirely.

Even if you think the census is an antiquated method of collecting data, you'd have to concede that would be a pretty dubious way of getting rid of it - particularly on the part of a governing party that's invested so much effort in discrediting the notion of a "hidden agenda."

I don't use that term lightly, because it's been thrown around so much over the years that it's become a bit of a joke. But it would be easier to brush it off if Stephen Taylor - who tends to have his ear to the ground in Conservative circles, and is not exactly a renegade - weren't popping up on the National Post's website arguing that making the long-form voluntary represents "the initial stages of dealing a huge blow to the welfare state."

Now, you may agree with Taylor that Canada should be more committed to "individual initiative," and that the best way to have less "collective dependence" is to stop collecting data that allows governments to target their spending. But that's a far cry from changing the census solely to avoid Canadians being forced to answer questions about their lives, which is how the government has sold it. For that matter, it's also a far cry from what The Economist is advocating, which is that data be collected through more modern methods - not that we avoid collecting it altogether.

Maybe Taylor is freelancing his views, and maybe other commentators are giving the Tories too much credit for having a long-term plan to move away from the census. Maybe it really is just a goofy decision with no real value, small-c conservative or otherwise. But either way, it shouldn't be mistaken for the far more straightforward decisions that have been made in other countries.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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