Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Canada's federal government has eroded its democratic foundations

The federal Conservative party may have stolen last year's election through fraud, blatant lies, and illegal acts. Why is anyone surprised? This party has been attacking Canada's democratic institutions since it first achieved power in 2006.

The Conservatives spout the rhetoric of fiscal prudence and small government, but in practice their actions violate these principles. The federal government has grown significantly in the past six years. When the Liberals took power in 1993, they inherited a record deficit from the Progressive Conservatives. Over the course of their thirteen years as Canada's ruling party, the Liberals turned these deficits into a string of fiscal surpluses (though they made plenty of mistakes along the way). The Conservatives took power in 2006 and promptly cut the GST (a consumption tax, which almost every economist recommends should be the last tax to be reduced, not the first) along with other taxes. As a result, when the 2008 recession hit, there was no financial cushion. They also increased spending to unprecedented levels so Canada now has, once again, a record deficit.

Strictly on macroeconomic concerns, given its practice of wildly diverging from its "small government" rhetoric, how can fiscal conservatives (I am one) support the federal Conservative party?

But the Conservatives are guilty of far worse than fiscal imprudence. There is a crucial difference between a typical political scandal (sexual exploits, misdirected or mismanaged funds, abuse of power for personal gain) and attacks on democratic institutions. All parties seem unable to avoid the former. The Conservatives have not been immune to these, but their several destructive actions in the latter category over the course of their six years in power deeply concern me.

While all political parties waste taxpayer money while in power, the Conservatives have abused their authority to muzzle Canadian scientists if their findings contradict party orthodoxy - a qualitatively different offense. There is plenty to despise about the Liberal sponsorship scandal - but that breach of ethics pales in comparison to publicly slandering a civil servant who had the courage to expose the fact that Canadian troops were complicit in the torture of detainees by handing them over to Afghan security forces. The previous Liberal government spent a billion dollars to create a gun registry that should have cost two orders of magnitude less, but under a Conservative government Canada has abandoned its citizens abroad - examples include Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, and Abousfian Abdelrazik.

The federal Conservatives and the provincial Liberals turned Toronto into a police state during last summer's G20 summit. It is appalling that both parties were reelected.

The Conservatives destroyed the census as a valid research tool. In my view, for that reason alone they should be disqualified as qualified to run the country (though it seems an insufficient number of my fellow citizens felt similarly on May 2, 2011).

Finally, let's examine the behaviour of the Conservative party during the past three elections.
  • In 2006, the federal Conservatives illegally bought the election via the "in and out" scandal (to which they recently pled guilty and were fined a mere $52,000).
  • Calling an election in 2008 violated the Conservatives' own fixed election date law. 
  • For the first time in Canadian (and Commonwealth) history, the Government of Canada was found in contempt of Parliament on March 9, 2011.

In recent weeks, it has emerged that the federal Conservative party conspired to send automated messages ("robocalls") to Canadian households to suppress voter participation, targeting homes likely to vote for non-Conservative candidates. This is both deplorable and perfectly consistent with the party's behaviour under Steven Harper.

The Conservatives have eroded of our civil liberties, democratic institutions, and (the possibility of) fact-based public policy. How can the current Conservative party have anyone's confidence?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Religion and morality: choose any one

A CBC article published on March 15, 2012 has the headline, "Catholic University in Ottawa opposes free condoms."

The first sentence sums up the controversy: "A Catholic university in Ottawa is under fire from its students after it prevented the student association from offering free condoms."

The position of the Church (and of Saint Paul University, connected to the University of Ottawa) reminds me of the arguments made by the automobile industry a few decades back.

"No, it would be disastrous," they claimed, "to install seat belts in all vehicles. That would have the horrible, terrible effect of making our cars safer. And when that happens, people will simply drive more dangerously, leading to more vehicular fatalities."

Fortunately, seat belts (and later, air bags) were mandated by government regulation, with the net effect of saving over fifteen thousand lives every year in the United States alone.

Similarly, the Church argues that if sex is safer, more people will have sex, which is intolerable (for reasons that still elude me). Yet any moral philosophy would recognize that an intervention that significantly reduces the spread of disease and limits the number of unplanned pregnancies (leading to fewer abortions or unwanted children) is an unambiguously good thing.

Though often claimed, I do not accept that morality and religion are related. They are often, as in this case, in direct opposition.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The former Chief Statistician of Canada speaks

On February 28, I had the pleasure of listening to talk by Munir Sheikh, the former Chief Statistician of Canada, entitled, "The Importance of Evidence-Based Policy Development". In it, he described his tenure at Statistics Canada, the government's decision to make completion of the long form optional, and the reasons for his resignation from Statistics Canada.

Dr. Sheikh compared the validity of the 2006 census to the 2011 "survey" (he refuses to consider an optional long form a census). When given a survey, about half of Canadian households will complete it without further prompting. If there is a reminder, such as a follow-up telephone call, then compliance usually increases to about 70%. But only when compliance is mandated by law do participation rates increase to over 99%, as the Canadian census enjoyed until 2006.

But perhaps, Dr. Sheikh asked rhetorically, seventy percent is sufficient to draw important conclusions about the demographics of Canadian society. Unfortunately, response rates differ drastically across different groups. Recent immigrants to Canada, aboriginals, and those with low levels of education are far less likely to complete the long-form survey. Conversely, those with high income levels disproportionately participate voluntarily. Thus the results from the 2011 survey are inherently skewed, but the extent of the bias is impossible to determine.

This concept was explained to the government, which chose to proceed with eliminating the mandatory element of the long-form questionnaire contrary to the advice of Dr. Sheikh and Statistics Canada. The stated reason was concern for the privacy of Canadians. Dr. Sheikh revealed that out of a population of over 35 million Canadians, there were a total of two complaints about the 2006 census related to privacy concerns.

Yet the reason Dr. Sheikh resigned from public service was not that the government decided on a course of action against his advice. His duty as a civil servant was to provide recommendations based on the public interest but ultimately to follow policy as set by the federal government. It was only when the government claimed that Dr. Sheikh counseled that "a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census" with equally reliable results that he submitted his letter of resignation. "It can not," he wrote.

His speech was followed by a question and answer session. Many people wanted to know (or speculated themselves) what the government's true motivation was for eliminating the long-form census. The audience seemed convinced it was a mixture of Conservative party ideology and a firm commitment to avoid the possibility of policy being questioned by facts. Dr. Sheikh consistently refused to speculate on motivations, sticking strictly to the facts and refusing provide further commentary. His professionalism was exemplary. It is possible that Canada could return to a proper census in 2016, he said, if the government so chose. However, the Conservative party announced its intention to eliminate the census before the 2011 election, and achieved its first majority. Therefore the likelihood of an about-face on this issue is unlikely.

I had the opportunity to ask two questions. If one wanted demographic data for any reason in 2013 (after all the results from the 2011 survey are published), what source would be best to use? The 2006 census, the 2011 survey data, or some combination of the two? Were there reliable sources other than Statistics Canada?

 Dr. Sheikh responded that it would be best to use the 2006 census as a baseline, and to use the 2011 survey to inform about trends since then. However, good judgment would need to be used when using any data from the 2011 survey, since there is no means to determine how accurate its results are. Other surveys are not particularly helpful since, by definition, they are completed by those that fill out questionnaires.

I also asked about the census question on religion, which is asked on the long form every second census (once a decade). It asks about a person's religion, with instructions to "Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group."

This question, as worded, measures the faith group one grew up with, not how one presently identifies oneself. If one is non-practicing, then "No religion" is probably the most accurate descriptor - but an unknown (presumably large, given the discrepancy between the 2001 census and recent survey data) number of non-practicing individuals will probably select from the list of denominations provided. Given his knowledge of extensive experience, does Dr. Sheikh believe it likely that Statistics Canada will improve the wording of this question in the future?

Dr. Sheikh replied that Statistics Canada was aware of the problem, and that it had met with groups defending each side of the issue. It will also likely consider the question again prior to the 2021 census. But there is tremendous value in maintaining the same question over long periods of time, to allow for comparison and analysis over the decades. Therefore there needs to be something fundamentally wrong with a question (or the improvement needs to be vast) in order for Statistics Canada to change its wording. My impression was that Dr. Sheikh believes it is unlikely the wording of the question on religion will be changed.

Overall, I was very impressed with Dr. Sheikh's intelligence, discretion, and articulation. The federal civil service lost a consummate professional when he resigned in 2010.