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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Citizenship, politics and the census

Stephen Harper's contrived excuses for doing away with the long-form census may just come around to bite him in the ass.

On the surface, we have something that looks like a shallow decision meant to appeal to our inherent desire for privacy. It's red meat to Harper's ignorant, knuckle-dragging, big-goverment-hating base. Who wants nosy bureaucrats poking around our lives? Why does Ottawa need to know how many people live in my house? None of their goddamn business how many bathrooms I have. An easy two points.

(This line of argument, if I can call it that, can have unfortunate consequences. Remember Michele Bachmann railing against the U.S. Census and saying the information might be used to put people in internment camps? A census worker in Kentucky was found hanged from a tree with the word “Fed” scrawled on his body. It wouldn't be the first time that a political crime was inspired by political hate speech.)

Unfortunately, it's also going to have the effect of making government programs and public decisions less effective. All kinds of things influence our daily lives and the shape of our communities:
  • urban planning decisions (affordable housing, economic policy tools aimed at job creation)
  • resource allocation and service delivery to target populations
  • identification of disadvantaged neighbourhoods
  • planning of services and outreach programs to immigrant communities (where Harper, incidentally, wants to build his support)
  • private business decisions based on projections of population and economic growth
all rely on the data collected by the long-form census. And the record shows that the very people who are most affected by these decisions are the ones least likely to complete it. And incomplete data means you don't have what you need to make informed decisions.

One can't help but discern an ideological component to this. It certainly wouldn't be the first effort to reduce the efficacy of public services to the point where people are so fed up with government's incompetence and inability to accomplish anything that they're willing to see public agencies drastically reduced or even dismantled. We've seen this in the United States, most spectacularly in the Bush Administration's feckless response to Hurricane Katrina. The strategy is straightforward enough, even if its callousness and hypocrisy make you want to retch: slash the funding and narrow the mandate of public agencies to ribbons, staff them with incompetent managers, and then shit all over them when they can't respond meaningfully.

This, of course, feeds into the pernicious narrative about government being useless and incompetent generally, and the argument that its functions should be left to the private sector because the profit motive creates an incentive to do things more efficiently. Grover Norquist once talked about wanting to shrink the U.S. federal government to the point where he could drown it in the bathtub. And how convenient for corporate interests whose main motive is to maximize short-term profits and do away with public oversight.

We've all seen how well that's worked out in the Gulf of Mexico.

So yes, it goes beyond pandering to idiots like Michele Bachmann.

The attack on the long-form census needs to be seen for what it is: a calculated tactical initiative from a Prime Minister less interested in governing effectively than in politicking 24/7 and destroying all opposition, both in Parliament and in the streets. He knows the gormless opposition parties aren't going to bring down his minority, and that people aren't going to take to the streets over the long-form census. (Given the way the cops went wilding at the G20, fewer people are likely to take to the streets in any event. Not that that would have been part of the calculation, of course.)

No, it's not voluntary. Yes, it's a pain in the ass. It might even take a few minutes out of your day. Tough shit. Citizenship carries responsibilities, and this is one of them.

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