Australians should learn from Canadians’ big census mistake

Census collectors go door to door in Sydney in 2011, the 100th year of census taking in Australia. Now the next census, due in 2016, is in doubt. AAP/Dean Lewins

Canadians and Australians have a lot in common. We share a language, a rich history and presence of Aboriginal peoples, multicultural populations and increasingly ambiguous ties to our Commonwealth histories. We love our team sports and we don’t always agree with the Americans.

We have also prided ourselves on the ability to understand our populations and plan public services through reliably collected statistical data. Lamentably, in 2010, Canada’s federal government eliminated its mandatory long-form census, breaking what didn’t need fixing.

Now Australia is considering changing the process by which it collects census and health statistics. News coverage points to some being in favour of moving to a shorter, 10-year survey in the hopes of saving costs and reducing the so-called data burden.

Before going down that road, we’d urge our friends down under to take a long hard look at the lessons of the Canadian experience.

What has Canada lost?

In Canada, the results of the decision to throw out the long-form census have been deeply discouraging. The voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) that replaced it is deficient at best.

The response rate for the mandatory long-form version, issued every five years, was 93.5%. The new NHS, which is shorter, voluntary, more expensive (ironically) and went to more people, had a response rate of only 68.6% in 2011. There was significantly lower participation from Canadians in mid-sized cities, small communities, rural areas, as well as from Aboriginal Canadians, immigrants and recipients of needs-based payments.

In other words, a wide array of information is being lost.

Canada’s national census dates to 1871. The data it gathered, initially in ten and then in five-year increments, was (and remains) vital to comparative, long-term understandings of where the country came from and where it is going. Census information is invaluable not only for governments, but for business, workers, researchers and communities at large.

Critiques of the “burden” of data collection are red herrings. Lost in debates about privacy or imagined cost reduction is that the census is about people. And data about people is central for building a healthier, safer, more equitable and prosperous country.

It enables governments to better plan key social and economic programs – such as Employment Insurance, Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan in our case – and to properly target investments, from public transit and transportation infrastructure, to health care, social services and education. It enables business to be informed about the labour supply, education rates and demographic trends critical for marketing and hiring.

Canadians no longer get to share their stories

The census was also a fail-safe way for Canadians to share our stories. For example, Canadian social science researchers used long-form census data to compare income trends among immigrants and visible minorities, accommodating for place of birth, date of arrival and education level. They found significant gaps between newcomers and second-generation Canadians, and between men and women.

Researchers were also able to show complexities, such as how some immigrant groups fare better than others, and that men with only a high school education struggle to find well-paying jobs.

The resulting portrait of one’s country may not always be flattering, but knowing the hard – and sometimes surprising – facts about who you really are is the first step in smart policy-making.

Tough policy discussions about how to address poverty, labour shortfalls and build the country that citizens want must still take place. The data doesn’t prescribe a solution. But these debates and decisions mustn’t occur in a vacuum, which is where we are heading now in Canada. It’s like driving blind, and I don’t recommend it.

University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski’s urban poverty research came to a stop when Canada eliminated the long-form census. Using data dating back to the 1970s, Hulchanski created a socio-economic map of Toronto in order to identify areas of poverty in relation to social service agency locations. What he found was that the two had become wildly out of sync.

Once prosperous neighbourhoods had declined, while the downtown core had been revitalised. Without census data, though, Hulchanski lacked the accurate statistical information he required to continue mapping the city and making future projections. He joined the growing chorus of critics.

David Hulchanski’s work identified critical social trends and divides, but the scrapping of the long-form census ended his study.

Make no mistake, Canadians take their data seriously. Canada’s Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh, advised against scrapping the long-form census. He then resigned when his sound advice was misrepresented by the minister of the day.

A strong and wide-ranging consensus to restore the long-form census prevails still among Canada’s researchers, planners, business groups, NGOs, a diverse set of think-tanks and even our opposition parties. We had an #itmakescensus campaign. The unwillingness of the Canadian government to change its position remains disconcerting.

Debate needed to shape a better census

It must be hoped Australia can do better. Reports that changes within the Australian Bureau of Statistics might already be a “done deal” are cause for concern.

I’d urge a fulsome and considered debate among Australians. Discuss frequency, discuss ways to improve it if it’s needed, but do not sacrifice having a regularised, mandatory and substantive census.

Public and corporate decision-making will be increasingly based on inaccurate and incomplete data, which creates troubling evidence-free zones. This allows ideologues of all stripes free rein to define problems and solutions without a clear grasp of the challenges facing the country, or ability for informed democratic debate on the likely impact of different policy options on diverse populations.

Many Canadians hope we can restore the long-form census one day. But we’ve lost important stories in the interim. It’s not too late for Australia to allow its own census to go ahead as scheduled in 2016. Doing so will show the world Australia’s commitment to evidence-based decision-making and support for a dynamic knowledge society.

Canadians are delighted to have so much in common with our Australian cousins. But on this issue, we don’t set a good example.