In the past three months, the Harper government has said some things about statistics that are blatantly wrong and received some media attention, which is a bit unusual. What things did the government say, and were they actually correct?
First, in June the government announced that it would be replacing the mandatory long form census with a voluntary one, and sending the voluntary one to more people. Industry Minister Tony Clement implied that sending the long form census to more households would be an acceptable substitute for the mandatory census, and that Statistics Canada agreed. This wasn’t the case, and on July 21, Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada, resigned over the issue. The government is sticking to its initial plan.
Can a voluntary census sent to more people replace the mandatory one with an almost 100% response rate? No. The main problem with a voluntary survey is that there will inevitably be biases in the responses. As an example, adults with lower literacy rates in French or English will be underrepresented in the census because of the additional difficulty they face in completing it. The mandatory census reduces this sort of bias as much as possible, and then additional filters developed by Stats Can remove the joke responses. For the surveys that Stats Can completes most of the time, the census is the benchmark used to determine how representative the respondents were of the general population. If the census becomes, essentially, a particularly large survey, there is no benchmark to know how close the results are to reality.
Second, at the beginning of August, Treasury Board President Stockwell Day announced that the government would be spending more money on prisons and justified it by claiming that surveys show that unreported crime rate has increased alarmingly. The latest Stats Can information from 2004 shows that unreported violent crime has remained stable. The unreported household crime rate (break & enter, theft, vandalism, etc.) for 2004 increased slightly, but the main reason given for not notifying the police was that the crime wasn’t important enough.
So, we have two cases this summer, where the Harper government has taken controversial issues and tried, unsuccessfully, to back them up with statistics. Obviously, they have other justifications for their decisions, but it’s disappointing to see them try to misuse facts. I think a quote from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson sums things up nicely:
“We don’t govern on the basis of statistics. We govern on the basis of what we hear from the public and what law enforcement agencies tell us.”
Statistics Canada General Social Survey Victimization information:
1999, Catalogue no. 85-553
2004, Catalogue no. 85-002, Vol. 25, no. 7