Many pundits and voters view Stephen Harper as a strategic political mastermind. Since winning the Conservative party leadership he has impressively managed to take a right-wing fringe party to consecutive minority governments. However, after repeatedly failing to win that elusive majority, the evidence is growing that blind ideology often impedes his better judgment.
His latest blunder comes with the growing and near unanimous backlash in his attempt to kill the long form portion of the census. Every five years the federal government conducts a survey of the country in two parts — a short form that is sent to everyone and a longer form that is only sent to one-in-five people. The long form probes deeper than the short form and provides a wealth of information for social welfare groups and policy-makers. Until Harper’s recent decision, both forms were mandatory, but now the long form has been made voluntary.
The rumours out of Ottawa suggest that this decision came directly from Harper himself, likely assuming that a change like this would go widely unnoticed as the political season winds down into the summer. However, statisticians, local governments, social groups, and even religious groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have denounced the action.
In a stunning display of statistical ignorance, to compensate for this break in continuous data, Harper decided that they would send out more voluntary long-form surveys at an estimated cost of $30 million. Perhaps a first-year stats student here can explain to Harper how collecting more shit won’t make it smell any better.
The government’s post-hoc reasoning for such an unpopular course of action is that the mandatory long form is overly intrusive and violates the fundamentals of the freedom to privacy. Neglecting that the freedom to privacy is neither stated nor implied by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is worth remembering that actions such as filling out the census are important of civic responsibilities, just like jury duty, voting, and paying taxes are. Similarly, Harper has no intention of making the long-form farm census voluntary which provides invaluable information about agricultural techniques. Apparently suburban libertarians are more important than rural ones.
Scrapping the long-form census is more about weakening the information available to progressive social justice agencies across the country than appealing to a very fringe libertarian base. By weakening the continuity of census data, organizations and local governments will be less able to target their services to where they are needed the most. If only those who can afford the time respond, it will be much more difficult for Stats Canada to ensure the robustness of its data from low income and remote communities; the groups most served by such aid organizations.
The census wasn’t Harper’s first mistake as leader. In his blood-lust to kill the weakened Liberal party after the 2008 election, he assumed it would be easy to remove the per-vote party subsidy system, only to find that the opposition parties could agree on enough to form a coalition and threaten to topple his government.
Then, last year he assumed Canadians were too apathetic to care if he prorogued Parliament to avoid answering questions about the torture of Afghan detainees. It must have been quite the surprise when hundreds of thousands of protesters turned up to criticize his three-month Christmas vacation.
So, it seems that perhaps Harper’s only real strategy thus far has been to appear less incompetent than the various Liberal leaders. But with lame ducks like Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff, should we really be calling Stephen Harper an expert strategist?