Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise today in the debate on Bill C-36, an act to amend the Statistics Act.
My understanding is that this bill was introduced by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development on December 7 of last year. It proposes amendments to the Statistics Act with the purpose of strengthening the independence of Statistics Canada. That truly is the rub in this bill. Will this bill actually achieve that?
What this bill purports to do is it would appoint the chief statistician during good behaviour for a fixed renewable term of five years, removable only for cause by the Governor in Council. It would also assign the chief statistician powers related to methods, procedures, and operations of Statistics Canada. What does this change in the bill practically do and where do some of my concerns lie?
First of all, while the minister would still have the ability to issue directives on statistical programs, which means being able to have some ministerial or government oversight on various statistical programs, he would no longer be able to issue directives on methods, procedures, and operations.
It is incumbent on the government to provide more information to Parliament on why it feels that change needs to be made. To me, I think there is actually a functionality of Parliament that could be lost in that particular change. Certainly the minister and his department would, from time to time, require some directive on those particular issues, and making this change might impede their progress on certain efforts there. I would be interested in hearing from the government specific examples or cases which it felt led to the necessary precipitation of this particular change.
The chief statistician may require any directive given to be made public and in writing before acting on the directive. I am not a statistician. My background is in economics. However, for anybody who is doing any sort of research methodology, there might be a survey bias or sample bias or failings in statistical methods if that publicity happens in the wrong format. Certainly the minister might have some interest in that particular component of it as well. Again, I would like to hear from the government about why it is making this particular change, and if there were cases presented to the minister that precipitated this change proposed by the bill.
It is also my understanding that even though this might not be the specific intent of this change in the bill, the chief statistician could now have authorization to choose where data is housed. That is a big concern. I know that privacy and data management are concerns for many Canadians. We have been talking about cybersecurity in various forms and shapes in parliamentary committees and through different pieces of legislation here in the House of Commons.
The government needs to clarify whether or not through this bill the chief statistician would have the authorization to change the data storage locations. My understanding right now is that there is an agreement that much of our data will be stored at Shared Services Canada. There is a broader policy discussion around Shared Services Canada and data management.
I think there would be agreement on all sides of this House that any decision to be made on the warehousing of very sensitive data that Statistics Canada might decide to collect should be informed by ministerial oversight. Prior to this bill passing, the government needs to clarify whether or not it would amend the portion of the bill that might allow that to happen. I certainly would not want to see the chief statistician, who is essentially not accountable to anyone, make an overarching decision on where that level of sensitive data would be housed, especially when there has been parliamentary direction to the housing of data made to date. I might add, just to contextualize this, let us say that the chief statistician chose to use a third party to house some or part of the data. There could be security concerns.
While the whole privacy component sounds sort of dry, it is quite valid. Again, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that component is clarified and perhaps removed from this bill. I do not think that is an appropriate power for the chief statistician to have.
The chief statistician, under this change, would also have authority to develop questioning within surveys. There is a whole debate around that. We could spend hours talking about how sensitive or how invasive a survey from Statistics Canada should be and what the requirements are to that effect.
I was talking to a colleague at one point about how certain data collection around agricultural activities on farms could be used by businesses to form monopolies and price gouge and all these sorts of things. Many Canadians are very sensitive about the types of information that they share.
Again, I almost feel like the bill is a solution in search of a problem. The government has not really explained why it would give this power to the chief statistician. If there have been particular instances that the Liberals feel that removal of ministerial oversight on this particular issue is beneficial, I think they need to explain that to Canadians. Again, this is within a bill that might seem benign in so many different ways, but this is very impactful on the lives of Canadians. My question on that point is why? I do not understand.
Many of my colleagues have talked about the fact that the bill would create the Canadian statistics advisory council. It would be comprised of 10 members and would replace the National Statistics Council. The council would advise the chief statistician and the minister and would focus on the “quality of the national statistical system, including the relevance, accuracy, accessibility and timeliness” of the statistical information produced. Under this bill, the council would be required to “make public an annual report on the state of the national statistical system”.
The government has produced no evidence as to why it would make this change. This seems crazy. We are replacing a board. I want to refer to a quote on this. The National Statistics Council, which this bill is trying to dissolve, has been in place to advise the chief statistician since the 1980s. It is made up of 40 experts and has been described by the UN as, “a bulwark in defence of the objectivity, integrity, and long-term soundness of Canada's national statistical system”.
With this bill, the Liberals are trying to replace a body that has been described by the United Nations, which the government is quite fond of, as something that is fantastic and working great with a council that is appointed by the government. Given the powers that this council is going to have and the fact that the government is changing it from something that is quite objective and working well, it begs the question, why are the Liberals doing this? Why would they replace this council with political appointees?
Again, there is no evidence in the bill and there has not been any evidence with concrete examples presented in speeches by my colleagues opposite as to why something that is functioning well needs to be replaced. I feel like this is almost something that somebody who wants to be appointed to this new board cooked up and gave to the minister and it was put in this bill. It just makes no sense.
Even so, if the government wants to come forward and say that the NSC is not functional in five or six different areas, then why not just give it a revised mandate? Look at the terms of reference under which the NSC operates and revise them.
I want to park that point for a moment, because in the latter half of my speech, I want to talk about why we are even spending parliamentary time with this bill as a priority. However, to continue on, my colleague who spoke earlier talked about how the NSC has representation from all corners of Canada. My understanding is that with the reduction in numbers, there will definitely be regions of this country that will lose their representation on this board.
That is important, because when looking at the priorities of Statistics Canada and the scope that is currently there, representation from each corner of the country is important. This is why we have Statistics Canada. It looks at regional differences in different types of datasets, which inform us on the best public policy options to take. I am concerned that the reduction in membership will remove the breadth of representation on the board right now.
The bill would no longer require “the consent of respondents to transfer their Census information to Library and Archives Canada and repeals imprisonment as a penalty for any offence committed by a respondent.”
We often talk about consent rights in this place in a wide variety of contexts but consent on information sharing is a topic that Parliament should be seized with. I would suggest that the bill perhaps violates the consent rights of Canadians in this regard. That is certainly not transparency. That would be the opposite of transparency. It is incumbent upon the government to talk about something that is not in the bill right now and that is how it plans to safeguard the consent rights of Canadians as to their information being shared before the bill is passed.
The bill would amend “certain provisions by modernizing the language of the Act to better reflect current methods of collecting statistical information”. That seems reasonable to me. Our legislation in this regard should not be static. We should make sure that our legislation reflects technological advancements and new methodology. That does seem reasonable to me.
The bill will head to industry committee should it pass the House. Industry committee will be seized with hearing witnesses on some of the points that I just raised.
Why is this legislation a priority? This is going to be the third bill that comes through the House of Commons and goes to industry committee and yet none of the bills have had any sort of reference to a jobs plan, innovation strategies, or anything that could particularly help Canada. My question is just simply: why? Why is this a legislative priority of the government? Why is this a priority of the House of Commons, which could be debating issues of much greater importance?
We are talking about statistics and the importance of statistics and I would like to give the House some statistics. Right now, my province has seen a change in unemployment rates in roughly an 18-month period from essentially the natural rate of unemployment in my home city of Calgary to over 10%. This is a sobering statistic.
When I think about what industry committee and the House should be seized with as opposed to changing the structure of the National Statistics Council and spending hours of debate on this, I have to wonder why are we not talking about how Canada's trade policy could be bolstered in light of some of the decisions that are being made in the United States right now. I would love to spend hours debating some strategy in terms of how we can take advantage of the opportunities created by the Canada-European free trade agreement. These are the things that industry committee should be seized with. The fact that the government wants to send this legislation to industry committee seems like it is filibustering that committee. It is very strange.
There are some other things I would like to see come out of industry committee as opposed to this legislation.
We talk about economic diversification in Alberta, which is something I have been interested in during the course of my parliamentary career. Why is industry committee not talking about a jobs plan that could create broader economic conditions for growth? I am speaking of things like a lower tax climate, especially when we look at the changes being made in the United States.
I hear colleagues in the United States saying that the new administration is going to be lowering taxes in several key areas that are going to render investment opportunities in Canada unattractive. Why is industry committee not studying the Canadian tax system, especially the proposed tax increases by the government, and how that will affect the competitiveness of our industries and our investment climate? That would be a great study for industry committee to look at. It could refer some recommendations back to the House. Instead, we have before us a bill that would change the National Statistics Council from 13 members to 10 who are now appointed. It makes no sense.
Something else I would like the industry committee to study that would use statistical data provided by Statistics Canada is how to spur innovation in a country where we have traditionally seen very high publication rates and we have focused on academic research. I fully support academic research and a strong academic research system, but that is where a lot of our investments over successive governments have gone. Why do we not see more industry-sponsored R and D, and why are some of our key strategies for the commercialization of research and development simply licensing technology out of the country? In some of our new and up-and-coming industrial sectors like the competitiveness and the opportunities we have with clean tech, why do we see such low adoption rates of technology that is grown in Canada into Canadian industry? Why is that happening? Is there a policy that the government could undertake that could incent adoption of Canadian clean tech?
I have great respect for the current president of Sustainable Development Technology Canada. I just spent an hour talking to her about these sorts of things. Yet, I am coming into the House of Commons to debate the National Statistics Council when the government has shown no evidence that this needs to be changed.
If I were sitting on the industry committee, I would love to see the government study whether the impact of the carbon price affects mid-size energy sector companies at perhaps disproportionate ways to larger-sector companies; and whether this is the best public policy option to ensure the growth and development of the energy sector. That would be something that I know people in my riding would be very interested in because perhaps that could lead to a revocation of what I think is a very bad piece of public policy. It would not be tangential for the industry committee to even look at topics around price elasticity assumptions related to the carbon tax and potential impacts on the energy sector and various other industrial sectors as they relate to either job growth or job decline. I think that would be in the committee's scope. These are the things that parliamentarians on the industry committee could be studying.
What the government has prioritized in this bill is essentially reducing accountability from Statistics Canada to Parliament. I do not understand it. It seems bizarre to me.
Something I have heard over and over again from people in my community is that they are wondering why the government has not talked about how to retain skilled labour in Alberta during this downturn. I would love to see the industry committee spend some time in Alberta and go and talk to some of the key trade associations and professional groups like geologists and geophysicists and accountants and lawyers, and our whole services industry that we have taken decades to build up in Alberta. I would love the committee members to talk to those groups of people and ask what changes they are facing in terms of their decision to stay in Alberta or not; and then what public policy options the government can look at in terms of keeping them there, so that if there is an opportunity for further investment down the road, labour is not a deterrent to growth.
In fact, the industry committee could even look at the impacts of skilled labour availability in western Canada in terms of how that impacts jobs and growth in the energy sector. That would be such a relevant, interesting study. I have a hope that it would even get national media attention because that is something that parliamentarians could use their time on that would certainly help jobs and growth in Canada, which I would hope would be the mandate of the industry committee. Indeed, I hope it would be the mandate of Parliament.
I have significant concerns with this bill. To re-emphasize, I do not understand why the government has put this forward. More important, the government really owes an explanation to Canadians as to why it has chosen to spend the industry committee's time looking at this when there are so many other pressing concerns that the committee members could be using, and then reporting back to the House with concrete recommendations that could produce a jobs plan for Canada.
In conclusion, outside of explaining some of the key components that I had at the front end of the speech as to why these changes are being made, I hope that the government will also use the time of this House in a more effective way when it comes to creating jobs and economic growth for Canadians.