Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Professional pride verses democratic accountability

The eminent European Statistical Governance Advisory Board takes a very dim view of the decision of the Canadian Government to replace a mandatory 44-page census questionnaire for one-fifth of Canadian households with a voluntary one for one-third of Canadian households. This decision was “political”—the Minister rejected the written preference of Statistics Canada officials.
Europe’s leading statisticians have responded to this stark assertion of political authority by arguing in their annual report that the independence of every country’s statistical agency should be enshrined in law. It cited Canada as an example of what can go wrong if governments are legally allowed to interfere in census-taking. 
Employing this deplorable Canadian example, the Council called for explicit legal assurances: “In a few countries history and tradition are considered to induce de facto professional independence, even if the legislation does not fully comply with the code. This was also assumed to the case in Canada but proved wrong.”
Canadians obviously have a high threshold for statisticians. Most Canadians, who roused themselves on issue, argued for being told, not merely asked to fill out the questionnaire. (The American government only dared ask Americans to answer ten questions in the 2010 decennial census and promised that it would take less than ten minutes!) Maybe it’s our authoritarian European political traditions. But, really, are Europeans or Canadians ready to enshrine in statute a public service profession wholly out of the reach of political authority?
In a free society, private market researchers—like lawyers, academics, and journalists, for instance—are accountable for their own professional standards of conduct. However, census-taking is a state activity. Statistics Canada officials are empowered by legislation as well as financed by the state. They can compel businesses and individuals to answer their questions. They exercise powers that the people’s representatives were elected to fashion and oversee.
As with public officials who police the streets, teach children, put out fires, and inspect workplaces, the powers of federal statisticians are created and can be altered by duly elected governments and parliaments.
If an interfering and philistine government tries to dumb-down professional public services, it will answer to voters who have come to expect better. However, the Harper government’s position on the mandatory long-form census adds nothing of substance to the recurring and illegitimate desire of professionals in government that want to be their own bosses. 

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