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A slogan that can't be counted on

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Lenin is said to have fomented the Russian revolution by inciting the masses with the slogan "Peace, Bread, and Land." It appears that today, in Canada, some opposition politicians are hoping to get public support with the slogan, "We want a compulsory census questionnaire!"

In politics, as a rule, it is the role and responsibility of the opposition to oppose. I have never subscribed to the proposition that legislators, once elected, have a responsibility to be reasonable and to co-operate with the government when considering either government policy or legislation. Especially when government policy is under discussion, political parties should reflect fundamental differences and those elected to the opposition should be true to the principles upon which they sought office and should continue to challenge the elected government. I have never criticized opposition parties for so doing. I always respected this stance of the opposition when I was in government.

Having conceded that the opposition is expected to oppose government policy, I also believe that it makes sense for the opposition parties to pick their spots. It is not every government policy or piece of legislation which defines a political issue on which the government should be challenged. Many things that government does are simply routine administrative details that do not involve differences in philosophy. Some legislation is non-controversial, and an opposition party would be wasting its time to make an issue of it. Rather than opposing minutiae the opposition can register its general opposition to the government by moving votes of confidence on the speech from the throne or the budgetary debates.

It is hard to believe that one of the more controversial issues today, which seems to have been seized upon by the opposition, is the decision by the Conservative government to discontinue the practice which requires certain citizens to answer a 40-page form which they receive from the government census department. The questions are not particularly personal or intrusive but the very fact that the government makes it compulsory for the citizen to answer the questions is an unwarranted interference with individual liberty. Not all citizens are treated equally. The questionnaires are sent only to a representative and randomly selected group. There is also some question as to whether answering the questions is really compulsory. It is difficult to cite examples of people being punished for refusing to answer the questions and it is difficult to believe that everyone who has received the form has complied.

I am at least personally aware of one situation where the citizen did not comply. Some years ago my secretary presented me with a questionnaire she had received from the census department. She felt that some of the questions being asked were none of the government's business. She pointed out the questions and I advised her that if she felt they were not justified she should simply decline to answer and if that caused her any problems I would defend her. She sent back the form with the unanswered questions and that was the last we heard of it. I suspect the government is not anxious to be involved in a court action because a citizen refused to identify one of the persons living in the house as being a common-law spouse.

Is it really possible to make electoral politics out of the slogan "Bring back our compulsory census questionnaire?" Apparently some in the opposition think so. I can easily be persuaded that there are many bureaucrats who believe that obtaining information in this way is a national necessity. Bureaucracy thrives on this kind of citizen harassment. I can also see certain academics being persuaded that our well-being depends on the government being permitted to ask and the citizen being required to answer such questions. But I, who have knocked on thousands of doors seeking public support, cannot imagine winning a single vote on the platform of requiring a citizen to answer questions of this kind under threat of being fined or imprisoned if they fail to do so.

The suggestion that the questionnaire is necessary in order to obtain vitally required information is not convincing. Every step of our lives is now a matter of public information. When we are born, when we go to kindergarten, when we are dependant, when we go to school or to university, when and where we are employed, when we are unemployed, when we commit crimes, when we pay our taxes and how much we earn, when we are senior citizens and receive pension and finally when we die and how we are dealt with on death are all matters of record easily accessible to the government.

The government is talking about a voluntary questionnaire. It just might work. I think people who are asked to co-operate will be in a better frame of mind to do so than people who are told that they must do so and will be subject to the heavy hand of state punishment if they refuse.

 

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2010 A10

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