Thank you very much, Chair.
I'm pleased to be here to address this committee regarding Bill . I'm here accompanied by my deputy minister, John Knubley. If you have any difficult questions, feel free to direct them towards him.
Today I would like to outline the elements of the legislation that is before the committee, explain the intent behind some of the provisions, and address some of the concerns raised during the committee's study of the bill.
We all agree on the importance and value of impartial and high-quality statistical information that responds to stakeholder needs. Statistics are a public good.
Governments have a responsibility to ensure statistics are of the highest quality possible. People from all walks of life—individuals, businesses, non-profits and governments—depend on them.
High-quality statistics are necessary to properly plan services, improve social outcomes, and help businesses grow. Obviously, we know the benefits are very important, and as we've heard from many in this committee, statistics should not be a partisan issue.
Clearly, there's need for formal independence, and currently Statistics Canada is treated by convention as an arm's-length agency with little direct involvement by the minister overseeing it. However, the agency's independence is not formally legislated. The decision to replace the 2011 mandatory long-form census with a voluntary service exposed a vulnerability in the Statistics Act. That's clearly what prompted this discussion. This was obviously a platform commitment, and hence we're here today. It allowed the government of the day to make a decision on a statistical matter with little openness or transparency.
This decision compromised the quality of data and the level of detail about the Canadian population. It deprived smaller communities of the information they needed to make informed decisions at the local level.
That's why the government quickly reinstated the mandatory long-form census, but more action is needed to ensure decisions on statistical matters are made independently and based on professional considerations.
The proposed amendments respect that Statistics Canada is recognized as a world-leading statistical institution. They enshrine into law the long-standing convention of independence conferred to Statistics Canada, and they will safeguard the quality and impartiality of the information produced by Statistics Canada.
Let me outline the amendments proposed in this bill and provide more detail on certain aspects on which questions were raised during the committee's study of the bill.
Under the current act the minister responsible for Statistics Canada has overarching authority for decisions about the agency's operations and its methods for gathering, compiling, producing, and disseminating statistical information, but in practice, this authority is delegated to the chief statistician. The bill will amend the act to formally make the chief statistician responsible for all operations and decisions related to statistical matters. This is a key important feature of the bill. This is the essential element of meeting our commitment to strengthening Statistics Canada's independence and bringing our legislation into alignment with the United Nations' principles and the OECD's recommended practices.
Given that statistics are a public good, however, the minister will remain accountable to Parliament for Statistics Canada.
The amendments have been drafted to balance independence, quality, and relevance while increasing transparency to ensure the government can be held accountable. Again, it really is about independence, transparency, and accountability. They ensure that the responsibilities of the minister and the chief statistician are clearly defined. They also ensure that these responsibilities come with the requirements for transparency and accountability to Canadians, and that the minister will retain authority to issue directives on statistical matters or programs. This is an important power that must remain with the executive.
Information and data needs are constantly evolving with societal and economic changes. This reality highlights the importance of why governments must be able to work with Statistics Canada to collect information on topics that are important to Canadians.
However, the bill ensures greater transparency around these directives, and it empowers the chief statistician to request written and public direction before acting on them. The bill clearly assigns to the chief statistician the responsibility of deciding what methods to use to collect data, including whether surveys will be mandatory or voluntary. Because mandatory surveys can be intrusive on respondents and are tied to penalties, the bill also requires that decisions to make a survey mandatory be published for transparency purposes.
It also requires that the minister be advised of such decisions before they take effect. Should the minister deem it to be in the national interest to make a decision that directly affects statistical matters, the bill requires that such decisions be authorized by a Governor in Council and tabled in Parliament as well.
As you can see, this bill ensures that independence does not come at the expense of transparency and the capacity to hold the government to account for decisions that impact Canadians.
The bill also proposes to create a new Canadian statistical advisory council—I know there's been a fair amount of discussion in this committee about that as well—which would replace the existing National Statistics Council. The new council will provide advice and will help ensure Canada's statistical system continues to meet the needs of Canadians.
During the committee's study of the bill, we heard questions about the council's purpose and how it differs from the existing council. We also heard concerns about the representativeness, or the number of representatives on the new council, and the potential for partisan appointments.
First, I would like to thank all past and current members of the National Statistics Council.
Their contributions to Canada's statistical system are an important reason why Statistics Canada is recognized as one of the world's best statistical agencies. I would especially like to thank the current members of the National Statistics Council for their recent contributions. This includes consideration of options and advice on how to strengthen Statistics Canada's independence.
As for why we're creating a new council, the rationale is simple: transparency and strategic focus. Entrenching the new council in legislation will increase transparency around the work it does and the advice it provides.
I'm told that it's difficult to find out who the current members on the National Statistics Council are, and that it's difficult to find out what issues the council has considered and what advice it has given to the chief statistician. This will not be the case with the new council.
The members of the new council will be asked to provide advice on specific issues related to the overall quality of Canada's statistical system. And the bill will require the council to prepare an annual report on the state of our statistical system.
Having 10 members will enable the new council to provide depth and strategic focus to the advice that it will be asked to give. The new council is meant to be highly strategic, and I fully expect it to formulate its evidence and advice based on a variety of sources, including the chief statistician and Statistics Canada's extensive advisory structure.
The new council will compliment the comprehensive advisory committee structure already in place at Statistics Canada. As you heard in previous testimony, this includes the seven provincial and territorial committees—including the federal-provincial-territorial consultative council on statistical policy—and ensures that all provinces and territories have an effective voice on statistical matters.
There are also 13 advisory committees in various subject matter areas, which include nearly 200 members from every province and territory, and a cross-representation of Canadian society. Council members will be appointed by a Governor in Council in an open and transparent manner, based on merit. This process will limit the potential for partisan appointments.
Colleagues, I read with interest the comments of Mr. Ian McKinnon, chair of the existing National Statistics Council.
He said to the committee, “The advisory council fills a new role, one which would be difficult for the current statistics council to perform, frankly, and the creation of that new entity is I think an essential and pivotal part of the promise that this bill holds in transforming it from just letters into a well-operating and successful change to the Canadian statistical system.”
Clearly, colleagues, I agree with Mr. McKinnon's assessment.
The bill will also change how the chief statistician is appointed. This is another area that I know has come up for discussion. The position will be a renewable term of no more than five years, and the appointment will be made through an open, transparent, merit-based selection process, in accordance with the government's new approach to Governor in Council appointments.
The chief statistician will serve during good behaviour, and may only be removed by the Governor in Council for cause. This will strengthen the independence of the chief statistician in his or her decision-making capacity.
Mr. Chair, let me highlight a few more amendments.
This bill addresses situations in which Canadians refuse to provide information related to the census and other mandatory surveys.
It will remove from the act the penalty of imprisonment for those who do not comply with a mandatory request for information. Again, this was an issue that was discussed extensively in the media when the previous changes were made. Canadians who do not comply will continue to face the possibility of fines of up to $500.
The bill will also allow the transfer of census records after 92 years. This is consistent with our commitment to open and accessible data. This will benefit researchers and historians, as I mentioned before.
Obviously, the response rate to the census has been very successful. In 2016, we saw that, and we want to make sure that we share this information in a timely manner.
Finally, the bill updates some of the language in the act as well, which is important.
The amendments in this bill were developed based on consultations with many Canadians as well as with international experts and bodies.
As I mentioned, they include the guidance and the principles of international organizations like the OECD, the UN, and other jurisdictions. We worked very closely with many other bodies as well.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, we understand that trusted information is essential for making informed decisions.
I would like to thank all the individuals who took the time to appear before this committee to offer their advice and input to the important work you have undertaken in the review of Bill . The amendments contained in Bill C-36 will enhance and protect the independence of Statistics Canada, increase transparency, and support evidence-based decision-making.
I look forward to the swift passage of this legislation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Mr. Minister, for joining us today—to Mr. Knubley, as well.
You started out by saying any tough questions should go to Mr. Knubley, so perhaps I should direct them all that way at this point.
All kidding aside, thank you for taking the time to be with us today. I was hoping I was going to get to spend a couple of hours on the court with you in a month, but that's not going to happen.
I just wanted to take some snippets from your presentation today and apply them to some of the questions that I've been asking. I think other witnesses who have been giving testimony have been bringing this forward as well.
I'm just going to read a couple of pieces out. “As we've heard...in this committee, statistics should not be a partisan issue”, and in the past there have been statistical matters dealt with with little openness and transparency. Also, “more action is needed to ensure decisions on statistical matters are made independently and based on professional considerations.” More directly to the point we've heard “concerns about the representativeness” of the new council and the “potential for partisan appointments”. Finally, “As for why we're creating a new council, the rationale is simple: transparency and strategic focus.”
I guess what I want to get at is that I understand the words on paper. I also understand there are some things in this bill that do provide more power to the chief statistician. There are also movements that are taken away from that. This isn't a one-way train to openness, transparency, and keeping government out of the process in terms of statistics.
When I look back at previous appointments to the innovation committee, I see that five out of the 10 people were Liberal donors. We've had the president of MaRS on that committee, who then came back and made a recommendation to give clusters funding. I'll be interested to see what happens with that.
While I understand what you're putting on paper, I question whether the partisanship is not embedded directly into this bill to begin with. I think that the record shows that when these people are appointed there's already been a tinge of disappointment. It resulted in a $800-million fund brought forward in the budget. That's a huge concern when we're looking at statistics going forward.