OTTAWA — In the mounting uproar over the government’s decision to axe the long-form census, there’s a key voice conspicuous by its absence: big business.
The list of those opposing the move is long and varied, including economists, social scientists, religious groups, doctors, provincial and municipal governments, minority rights advocates and the former chief statistician.
And with the Internet hopping with criticism of the move, the federal Conservatives are clearly on the defensive.
Despite the growing opposition, the Tories have dug in their heels — partly, insiders say, because business leaders have not spoken out.
“There’s been no outcry from our members,” says Terrance Oakey, vice-president of federal government relations for the Retail Council of Canada.
“We’ve chosen not to get involved in the issue.”
That’s a contrast to what happened in the 1980s. Then, the federal government of the day announced it was going to do away with the 1986 census altogether.
The backlash was fierce. When big business finally stepped in, especially key retailers, the government backed down.
This time, big business has been far more timid.
“We feel there are other organizations in Canada better suited to respond to a question on the census,” a spokeswoman for Sears Canada Inc. said in an email.
Economists working for Bay Street firms have opposed the decision through the Canadian Association for Business Economists. The Canadian Marketing Association and the Toronto Board of Trade have both publicly opposed the decision.
But the large, national business groups say they are not hearing much from their members.
“We don’t have a dog in this hunt,” said Ross Laver, spokesman for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. The group represents most of Canada’s blue-chip companies.
The council discussed the cabinet decision soon after it became public, Laver said, but felt there was no need to speak out.
The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters had a similar experience.
“We haven’t heard a big push for this. It’s not front and centre,” said spokesman Jeff Brownlee.
The manufacturers — much like the retailers — are dealing with so many other issues that the census debate is not registering, Brownlee said.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has taken a stand. The group representing small and medium-sized firms opposes the way the Tories handled the change.
Ottawa should have done a thorough review of how the census data is used and how questions are asked, said CFIB economist Ted Mallett.
And if government officials found a problem with questions that are too personal or intrusive, they should have discussed changing the questions rather than replacing it with a voluntary form, Mallett said.
Companies are always finding new ways to compile their own databases and do their own research, said Doug Norris, chief demographer and senior vice-president at Environics Analytics.
But when companies compare data to the past, or make comparisons between neighbourhoods or different slices of the population, information gleaned from the long-form census is at the core of such comparisons.
The census data only comes every five years, so it’s not as up-to-date as many businesses require, Norris said.
He is not convinced that a voluntary survey designed to replace the mandatory long-form census will give him the accuracy and the detail he needs.
Businesses, he said, will have less reliable information on which to base key decisions such as where to expand, where to locate, how to market their products, and what kinds of products to carry.