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Canada West Foundation Blog

Thoughts from the CEO – Long-form Census

Monday, August 09, 2010

Only rarely does the Canada West Foundation as an organization express a view on policy issues. The norm is to speak through our research reports and their authors, and to avoid institutional endorsement of particular policy options or views. However, the debate over the long-form census is an exception, a case where the issues seem so important that they call for an institutional response. Thus in a variety of forums, the Foundation has joined with other Canadian think tanks in calling upon Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to reverse its decision to make the long-form census voluntary.

But why has the Canada West Foundation taken up this crusade? In part the answer comes from our methodological experience and expertise; we know that a voluntary census will not produce reliable data. This is not an opinion; it is as close to a fact as one can get in the complex world of statistical analysis. The government’s argument that a voluntary census will work if mailed to more people and backed up by massive advertising is simply wrong. We will pay more for less, which seems an odd strategy in this fiscal environment.

But does it matter if data quality is corrupted? I would argue that in a knowledge-based economy, paying more for poorer data makes no sense. We need more rather than less evidence-based policy design, and the movement away from the current long form census is movement towards policy impoverishment. It is also a signal to the world that we don’t take ourselves seriously, that we’re content to rely on hearsay and guesswork.

All of this, of course, may seem rather abstract, so let me give you a concrete illustration from the Foundation’s work. Part of what we do involves mapping patterns of demographic change in a highly dynamic, growth-driven region of the country. We know that the region has been transformed fundamentally since the census in 1971, the year the Foundation was created, and we believe that understanding and mapping that transformation is fundamentally important in coming to grips with the future of the West in Canada, and within an increasingly competitive global economy. Self-knowledge is not everything, but it is an important start.

However, if we move to the short-form census alone, or coupled with a deeply flawed voluntary long form census, we will no longer be able to map the demographic evolution of the West. When asked to describe how our linguistic and ethnic diversity is changing, to map the migration of Aboriginal peoples into urban centers, to understand patterns of integration, assimilation and migration for new Canadians, we will have to fall back on guess work and assumptions. I can’t believe that we will settle, that we should settle, for “by guess and by golly” when we can do so much better.

Now, none of this means that the status quo should be exempt from criticism. We could certainly eliminate the threat of jail for failing to complete the census, a threat that has never been carried out in any event. We can and should review the content of the long form. And, if we’re smart, we can further insulate the Census operation from political influence.

In short, we can do better, but the long-form census is one baby that should not be thrown out with the bath water.

Posted by: Roger Gibbins


Thoughts from the CEO

Monday, June 28, 2010

Policy discussions about climate change and energy have been inextricably linked, as climate change policies all come back to how we produce and consume energy. Indeed, climate concerns more than anything have sparked a global debate on energy policy, and on the complex transition towards a carbon-constrained economy.

Over the past year, however, this linkage has weakened as political interest in climate change has faded, although not disappeared, in the face of the global recession and the collapse of the December UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Climate policy played no role at the recent G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto where world leaders wrestled with finding the right balance between stimulus and deficit reduction while showing no inclination to step into the international climate policy void left after Copenhagen.

But, if public interest in climate policy is waning, this is not the case with energy policy. In effect, the complex climate debate has been transferred to an equally complex debate about energy security, changing patterns of energy supply, and efforts to transform patterns of energy consumption, a debate fueled most recently by the Gulf oil spill.

Although there is general agreement about the shape of our energy future, that we will become increasingly reliant on renewable forms of energy, there is no agreement on the extent and pace of the transformation. The energy future is being sketched without any clear game plan as to how that future might be realized.

The shift in political focus from climate change to energy policy is of great importance to the Canada West Foundation given the West’s vast endowment of energy assets ranging from hydro to hydrocarbons, and everything in between—nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and even tidal. If energy policy is the global challenge of the next 20 years, as I firmly believe it will be, then global policy debates will inevitably ripple across western Canada. We have a great many cards to bring to the policy table, but also significant challenges with respect to environmental protection and the greener production of conventional energy resources.

The Canada West Foundation has responded to this transformation of the policy agenda in a number of ways. First, we have been very active in helping to shape a national debate on energy policy (see Getting It Right and Towards a Canadian Clean Energy Strategy).

Second, we have projects in play addressing the opportunities and challenges we face in moving towards a new energy economy where the proportionate contribution of hydrocarbon resources will decline over time.

Third, we are building our internal capacity through the appointment of Michael Cleland as our Executive in Residence on the energy file, hiring a new energy economist, and recruiting additional research capacity through the internship program. The Foundation will also roll out a major energy project this fall.

The goal is not to become an organization dominated by the energy file, but rather to have the capacity to contribute in a significant and constructive way to regional and national policy debates about our energy future. Getting policy frameworks right is critically important for the sustainable economic prosperity of western Canada, and for that matter of Canada.

The Foundation therefore needs to be involved, and involved we will be.  Watch this space!

Posted by: Roger Gibbins


Op-ed: China’s Potential Impact on Western Canada

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sometimes a rubber chicken dinner is only that, but sometimes it flings open the windows on new insights, as did a small University of Alberta dinner, held in Calgary, that explored the potential impact of China’s expanding economy on western Canada.

Admittedly, China’s economic growth is not a new story, and like most people I have had an ongoing fascination with events in China. However, this casual “tourism of the mind” has not fully come to grips with the sheer magnitude of the new Chinese reality.

Many Canadians still see China primarily as a huge potential market without also seeing China as a major potential investor in Canada. Indeed, the impact of Chinese investment in western Canada may well rival the impact of expanding markets.

There is a also a temptation for western Canadians, who are hard-wired for economic booms and busts, to see China’s current prosperity as a blip rather than a transformative event, to believe smugly that China will be brought back to earth by rural poverty, the demographic repercussions of Mao’s one-child policy, and environmental stress. Recent growth has been so out of line with our experience that it is easy to believe that China is a bubble waiting to burst.

And yet, this bubble is likely to be our enduring reality, and even if it does burst or deflate, the impact on the Canadian economy will be direct and immediate. For this and other reasons, the Harper government has shed its initial coolness to China and is moving to strengthen economic and political ties. Gone are the days when Canadians sat on the sidelines, hectoring and lecturing the Chinese on human rights issues.

We are also realizing that access to China’s markets and investment is much more difficult than we first thought. China’s growing appetite for energy will be immense, but moving land-locked western Canadian energy resources to Chinese markets will not be easy.

Part of the challenge is physical infrastructure, the ports and rail lines we need to connect the West to Asian markets. Although Canada has made some significant strides with the Asia-Pacific Gateway initiative, an effective gateway also implies cultural understanding and language skills. It is about coming to grips with different traditions with roots that go back thousands of years. Effective gateways are as much cultural as they are physical, and cultural understanding must flow both ways.

China’s economic success may even challenge some of our most basic political values, ones that go back to the Protestant Reformation. We believe, and with good reason, that strong liberal democratic institutions foster economic prosperity, that democracies with competitive party systems are the best positioned to succeed. Perhaps, but China is offering the world a different model with considerable success if not principled appeal.

While there is no question that Chairman Mao got so much wrong and so little right, it is less clear that the same condemnation holds for China’s current leadership. There may well be different paths to the same end of economic prosperity.

Of course, we should not be overly Pollyannaish about China’s boom, while keeping in mind that a China in distress will also have dramatic impact on the global and Canadian economies. We can never be certain what the future holds. Nevertheless, if we want a glimpse of the world to come, it is more likely to be found on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai than on the streets of Europe or North America.

Roger Gibbins is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. Canada West Foundation is committed to sustainable prosperity in Western Canada, and the only think tank dedicated to being the objective, nonpartisan voice for issues of vital concern to Western Canadians.

Posted by: Roger Gibbins


What’s an elected Senate for?

Monday, February 22, 2010

It is likely that the Harper government will continue to press forward with its Senate reform agenda when the House of Commons goes back to work in March.

At present, the Harper government is going ahead with Senate reform without a clearly articulated vision of the destination. Term limits, while important, just don’t capture the imagination of Canadians (most would probably be quite surprised to learn that Senators can stick around until they reach age 75).

Simply referencing the old Triple E model is also not good enough. “Equal, elected and effective” for what? Why should Canadians care?

Four powerful arguments why Canadians should care spring to mind that need to be fleshed-out and vigorously debated.

First, a reformed Senate could be used to overcome the chronic inability of the House of Commons to reflect the diversity of the Canadian people. Women, visible minorities, Aboriginals, small political parties and other minority groups are poorly represented in the current House of Commons. This doesn’t mean that MPs don’t care about these groups, but it is a problem when the country’s main legislative body does not include the same diversity as the population it represents.

Fixing this shortfall can’t be done via appointments to the Senate because this is, no matter how sincere, a form of tokenism. The shortfall must be fixed by way of an electoral process.

Second, a reformed Senate could help ensure that federal policy is based on a wider variety of input with a premium placed on compromise and consensus among diverse perspectives. Admittedly, this makes for a slower, more complex and generally messier legislative process, but that’s how a healthy democracy works.

Third, a reformed Senate could serve as a check on what virtually everyone agrees is the alarming concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and the central agencies that report to his office. Even in boring old Canada, too much power in the hands of one individual is a bad idea. With an elected Senate hovering over the Prime Minister’s shoulder, the concentration of power would be greatly dissipated.

Fourth, there is the longstanding need to use the Senate to better capture, express and institutionalize Canada’s regional diversity. A properly designed elected Senate could achieve this and help knit the country together.

Not everyone will agree with these arguments while others will suggest alternative reasons for reforming the Senate. The point is that we need more debate about the ultimate goals of Senate reform. To this end, a new Canada West Foundation paper coming out in a few weeks examines this issue in more detail.

The goal is to help initiate a broad public debate about how we want ourselves to be governed. If this is not an important enough issue for Canadians to spend some time and energy on, our country is in deep trouble.

Tell us what you think.

Posted By: Roger Gibbins