In recent censuses, 80 per cent of us have been required to answer the few questions contained in the “short form.” A randomly selected 20 per cent have been required to spend an hour or more answering a wide range of questions included in the “long form.” On a Friday afternoon in late June, with no prior consultation, the cabinet announced that the long form would become a voluntary National Household Survey for the 2011 census.

On the basis of what I know – much of it hearsay – the origin of this decision lies with a few cabinet ministers of libertarian sensibilities, including the Prime Minister. They subscribe to the argument that compelling citizens to divulge detailed socioeconomic facts about themselves is an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Maxime Bernier, Tory MP and former cabinet minister, has been among the clearest in his opposition to a mandatory census. “Fundamentally,” he blogged last July, “my position is that whatever the presumed usefulness of these data, I don’t believe it justifies forcing people to answer intrusive questions about their lives, under threat from a fine or jail time if they don’t.” Statistics Canada as leviathan, the PMO as defender of civil liberties.

The cabinet has invited Statistics Canada to do whatever it wants to nudge Canadians into answering long form questions – increase the sample size, mount a national advertising campaign, conduct a supplementary survey to get an idea about those choosing not to divulge their private information – but it can no longer coerce compliance.

The government did not expect this decision to be particularly controversial: a few stories in the Globe and Mail and La Presse, some gnashing of teeth by Liberal-era senior civil servants and academic researchers. They were wrong. The decision catalyzed near-unanimous outrage from those engaged with public affairs. As I write in November 2010, it appears that the cabinet will nonetheless prevail. It has ignored a resolution voted in Parliament calling for reinstatement of the mandatory long form, and will probably find tactics to prevent passage of a private member’s bill requiring reinstatement.

While opposed to the change, Statistics Canada officials agreed to run a census based on voluntary participation and remain silent about its inadequacies. However, when the cabinet interpreted that silence as endorsement of the voluntary survey as equivalent to a mandatory census, the chief statistician resigned in protest. The data arising from a voluntary survey cannot be considered reliable, Munir Sheikh insisted: “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. It cannot.”

Canadian print journalists – both liberal and conservative, in French and English – damned the decision in editorials and columns, and devoted many, many articles to discussing the probable biases that a voluntary long form would introduce. Not entirely indifferent to the wishes of their paymaster, CBC journalists have not been among the leaders in the Great Census Debate.

Beyond government and media, many business associations, which also use census data, joined the protest. So too did many advocacy groups. Among the most offended have been representatives of Aboriginals who are not registered Indians under the Indian Act. Métis, nonstatus Indians and Inuit comprise nearly half the total Aboriginal population – according to the 2006 census long form. To design decent services for this group, school boards and others need estimates of the numbers involved, disaggregated by individual communities across Canada. The census long form asks respondents to self-identify, if appropriate, as North American Indians, Métis or Inuit. The resulting statistic has become widely accepted. Is it a perfect measure of who is and who is not an Aboriginal? Obviously not, but it enjoys credibility as a statistic prepared with rigour by an agency having no interest in either exaggerating or minimizing the total.

Like Aboriginals, francophones outside Quebec rely on the census long form to estimate their numbers. Disaggregated by school districts, the mother-tongue francophone statistics are the basis for francophones exercising their constitutional right to French-language education “where numbers warrant.” Faced with the government decision to abandon the mandatory long form, the francophones immediately went to court, arguing their constitutional case for reliable numbers. The cabinet backed down, adding French language questions to the mandatory short form.

By August, millions of Canadians who had given no thought to the census since the previous one in 2006 became aware that the cabinet was undermining Statistics Canada’s ability to organize a statistically rigorous census. To the consternation of Conservative organizers, pollsters detected a “census effect” in their results: in particular among those with university degrees, support was declining for the Tories and rising for the Liberals.

At the height of the debate, in early August, the provincial premiers gathered in Winnipeg for their annual meeting. Host Premier Greg Selinger placed the census on the agenda, with the hope that the premiers would unite in defence of census integrity and call for restoration of the mandatory long form. In the days leading up to the Winnipeg meeting, most premiers defended the census as crucial to planning their respective provincial programs. As the Parti Québécois issued press releases asking Quebecers why they wanted to remain in a country that could not organize a respectable census, Premier Jean Charest praised Statistics Canada’s professionalism. Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty made similar speeches and several of his ministers wrote public letters to the Prime Minister spelling out difficulties for their respective ministries if census information was biased.

Stephen Harper and many of his cabinet colleagues may have libertarian tendencies, but that did not stop them from effectively using the levers of power. To prevent the premiers from having influence on the census debate, they needed to block a united front, and they went after the three westernmost premiers.

Persuading Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to break ranks was not hard. British Columbia’s Gordon Campbell faced a bizarre but effective populist revolt against his government’s sales tax reform, a revolt led by a former Social Credit premier and the NDP official opposition in Victoria. Campbell decided not to add to his troubles by alienating Ottawa over the census and thereby jeopardizing large one-off cash transfers intended to ease reform of the sales tax. (The revolt has not subsided and he subsequently resigned his premiership over the sales tax imbroglio.) Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall was negotiating for federal aid to farmers flooded by spring rains. He was made to understand that he should choose: money for farmers or integrity of the census.

There is, I acknowledge, a libertarian case to be made against conducting censuses. The first formal census in what is now Canada was undertaken by Jean Talon, Intendant of New France, who enumerated 3,215 colonists in 1666. At the time, Louis XIV wanted to increase the colony’s population by subsidizing the emigration to New France of young women of marriageable age. The census provided a benchmark for evaluating success.

As well as any, this incident illustrates libertarian misgivings. Censuses are intimately linked to government meddling in people’s lives. How comfortable would Canadians be were the primary goal of the census to gather information enabling a campaign to subsidize immigration to Canada of young fertile women? Even if we acknowledge that the questions posed in censuses relate to the political agenda of the age, it is a stretch to portray the collection of data under rules of strict confidentiality as acts of an overbearing state.

In the order of political conflicts around the world, the Great Canadian Census Debate of 2010 ranks low; indeed, it is a quixotic addition to the list. That it took place says something interesting, however, about Canadians. Maybe “peace, order and good government” really is the essence of this peaceable bilingual and multicultural dominion. To elevate the right to privacy above the collection of accurate socioeconomic statistics makes bad government almost inevitable. And while we Canadians often think our politicians guilty of delivering bad government, we have faith that they can and often do deliver reasonably good government. The libertarian desire to thwart Statistics Canada in defence of the right to privacy does not resonate with most of us.

Americans clearly differ from us on all this. As the November midterm elections indicate, many Americans support conservative libertarians whose promise is not to make government better but to starve it by further lowering taxes, not to improve Obama’s health care plan but to repeal it. A symbolic libertarian strike that Glenn Beck and other vocal libertarians would undertake is to castrate the U.S. census as Harper has ours.