Bill to boost StatsCan independence called 'half measure'

A Liberal bill to strengthen the independence of Statistics Canada fails to address one of the biggest challenges to the agency’s autonomy, according to critics.

Critics of Bill C-36 say the legislation doesn't do enough to fulfill Liberal election promise

NDP critic for public services and procurement, Erin Weir, says Bill C-36 pays lip service to the idea of making Statistics Canada more independent. (CBC)

A Liberal bill to strengthen the independence of Statistics Canada fails to address one of the biggest challenges to the agency's autonomy, according to critics.

Bill C-36, touted as a means of modernizing Canada's statistics agency, proposes amendments to the Statistics Act, including the establishment of a new advisory committee and the removal of jail time for citizens who refuse to complete mandatory censuses.

But, as Parliament members contended during a debate for the bill's second reading in the House of Commons earlier this week, the bill makes no mention of a major sticking point in the debate over the department's governance in recent years.

"Fundamentally, the bill does not address the whole mess between Statistics Canada and Shared Services [Canada]," Erin Weir, NDP critic for public services and procurement, told CBC News.  

In a cost-saving effort to centralize IT services for public service agencies, the Conservative government introduced Shared Services Canada in 2011.

The agency is mandated to provide telecommunication and data services for 43 federal agencies, including Statistics Canada.

Shared Services' troubled rollout 

Hiccups followed, and in September of last year, Statistics Canada's chief statistician Wayne Smith stepped down, citing an inability to carry out the agency's mandate due to an increased dependence on third-party IT services that he said compromised StatsCan's independence.

Weir believes Smith's resignation may have prompted the Liberals to put forward the bill. 

"It seems as though the Liberals brought forward this bill ostensibly about Statistics Canada's independence in response to the controversy created by Mr. Smith's resignation, but the bill doesn't actually address the issue of Shared Services," Weir said.

Canada's former chief statistician, Wayne Smith, stepped down in September, saying the independence of his agency was compromised by new information-technology arrangements with Shared Services Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

NDP MP Guy Caron said during Tuesday's debate that by not addressing Smith's complaint and subsequent departure, the bill amounts to a "half measure."

"With all the expectations that were created during the [2015 election] campaign, bills like these fall short of these expectations," he said in a later interview with CBC News.

"If [Statistics Canada] were truly independent than they would have the freedom of accepting or declining Shared Services."

The Liberals pledged to make StatsCan "fully independent" during the 2015 federal election campaign. 

Caron's colleague, Alexandre Boulerice, said the bill was the latest in "long line of broken Liberal promises."

Buffer between agency and 'political interference' 

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux defended the proposed changes to the Statistics Act during the debate, calling the bill a "positive piece of legislation" intended to boost Statistics Canada's independence and transparency. 

The bill would, for example, make public cabinet decisions or ministerial orders that the chief statistician opposes. 

When Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, C-36's sponsor, introduced the bill on Dec. 7, he said the changes would strengthen Statistics Canada's non-partisan mandate.

"This bill, once passed, will ensure that there will be no political interference in the collection of statistics in general, and the census in particular." 

Bains added, "I am proud of our government's decisions to reinstate the mandatory long-form census and to introduce this bill. These actions will ensure that Canada's national statistical system remains strong." 

The resurrection of the long-form survey scrapped by the Conservatives was met with enthusiasm from the public. But Caron said it isn't enough. 

"I don't think you can actually just reinstate the long-form census and claim that Statistics Canada is more independent," he said.

Bains office said the minister was unavailable to comment.

'Policy-based evidence' a concern 

Weir said a failure to adequately address the erosion of Statistics Canada's independence hurts not only the department, but Canadians, too. 

"People should be concerned about this bill, not because they necessarily care about Statistics Canada for its own sake, but because the work Statistics Canada does informs and affects almost everything else the government does.

"If the independence of StatsCan is compromised, we might end up with policy-based evidence where the research is being skewed by a political agenda and that's what we need to avoid."

Both Weir and Caron told CBC News that while C-36's failure to address Shared Services' impact on Statistics Canada's independence is a glaring omission, they are supporting the bill with the hope of improving it once it's before a Commons committee.