The government modified its census position yesterday. Unfortunately for the cause of responsible government, these changes don't alter the situation much - but they do illustrate the vapidity of the government's stance.
Firstly, in the face of a court challenge by minority language groups, the questions on language use are now going to be part of the mandatory short form. The reason for this is clear: there was no way that the government could convince the courts that a voluntary survey would provide information that would be credible enough to fulfill its obligations to minority language groups to provide services in the official language of their choice.
This is of course an implicit recognition of something that critics have been saying explicitly for the past six weeks: that the voluntary survey will not produce reliable data. What's even more astounding is that on very the same day, Tony Clement saw fit to repeat the claim that increasing the sample size would fix the self-selection problems associated with the voluntary survey. If the government really believed that assertion, there would be no need to move the language questions to the mandatory short form.
The other thing the government did was to announce legislation to remove the threat of imprisonment for those who do not respond to mandatory surveys such as the census and the Labour Force Survey. The point has been made before that if the government did not want to threaten people with jail for not answering certain questions, the remedy was to remove the questions and/or remove the threat of jail; making the entire long form voluntary was a non sequitur. Now that the threat of imprisonment has been removed, then there really isn't anything left of the government's original case for making the long form voluntary.
Yet the decision still stands, and we need to look forward. It's an ugly, ugly picture.
Before the decision went public, Statistics Canada estimated that the response rates for the long form would fall from about 95% to 50%, but it could be brought back up to 70% if they spent a lot of money pestering non-respondents. This result was of course deemed to be unacceptably low a few months ago, but even this level of failure seems like an unattainable dream now. Now that the census has been made a playground for partisan politics, many CPC partisans will decide that their party's cause will be best served by not filling out the voluntary forms, and many opposition supporters will boycott the long form in protest. The long form data will be a dog's breakfast.
And there will no doubt be many people who will have missed the distinction between the short and long forms and will wrongly assume that they can pitch their short forms into the recycling bin without consequence. After making such a big deal about not forcing people to fill out the census form, the government will be hard-pressed to justify using the powers of the State to force citizens to fill out the short form. There's a real risk that the short form data won't be usable, either.
These are problems that will explode in the government's face over the next few months. But it won't end there. As the months and years wear on, every single census release will be accompanied with a lengthy discussion of to what extent changes since 2006 reflect reality or the failed 2011 census. This is going to go on for years; a cursory search kicks up at least 11 discussion papers based on the 2006 census published by Statistics Canada in the past 12 months. (See here for a summary of output from the 2006 census.) And that's just Statistics Canada. It doesn't include studies done at other federal departments such as Finance or HRDC, or by other agencies at other levels of government.
Of course, non-government researchers will have to devote any number of person-years dealing with the wonky 2011 numbers. Many future studies will no doubt be obliged to use a binary indicator variable to capture the 2011 outlier; this indicator will be known as the Clement Dummy. There will be snarky variations on this notation during seminars.
The implications will go beyond empirical studies that make direct use of quinquennial census data. Variations in higher-frequency numbers will also be suspect:
- The Labour Force Survey uses the census to make sure that its rotating panel is representative of the working-age population. As time goes on, our measures of what that means will deteriorate, and the quality of the LFS data will deteriorate as well. This matters; a small thing such as wonky seasonal adjustment in the education sector was enough to generate stories about whether or not the Bank of Canada should pay attention to the recent employment numbers when deciding the short-term course of interest rates.
- Statistics Canada uses weights derived from the Survey of Household Spending to calculate the Consumer Price Index, and the SHS uses census data to make sure its sample is representative of the entire population. If those weights do not accurately reflect Canadians' spending patterns, then variations in the CPI will not accurately reflect variations in the cost of living.
These are only the most visible manifestations, and readers are encouraged to add their own personal favorites to this list.
What is even more discouraging is that even if the 2016 census is run properly, the problems associated with the 2011 census can't ever be fixed. Time series data are constructed by piecing together different survey results, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
In many important ways, our history is about to become a lot shorter.