Bill C-36: An An Act to Amend the Statistics Act - Second Reading
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak as the official opposition critic of Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act.
This legislation will make a number of changes to the way that statistics are gathered in Canada. First, it would entrench into law that the Chief Statistician is responsible for the methods, procedures and operations of statistics-gathering programs.
In the event that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development requested a statistical program to be done in a way that was against the advice of the Chief Statistician, the minister would be required to table a directive in both houses of Parliament which explains the rationale for the approach. This document would be subject to debate, and therefore this measure demonstrates a positive change in the relationship between Parliament and Statistics Canada with more independence given to Statistics Canada.
Second, the bill repeals the requirement for consent to transfer survey responses to Library and Archives Canada after 92 years.
Since 2006, Canadians who fill out a Statistics Canada survey have had to indicate whether they would be comfortable with sharing this information in 92 years’ time. This legislation would remove the need for that consent.
Third, this legislation would fix the appointment of the Chief Statistician to a term not exceeding five years, subject to good behaviour. The Governor-in-Council can choose to reappoint the Chief Statistician for one additional term not exceeding five years. This is a departure from the current appointment process under which the Chief Statistician serves at the pleasure of the minister and is not confined to a term limit. This measure encourages independence of the office and I support it.
Bill C-36 removes the penalty of imprisonment for providing false information or failing to complete a mandatory survey. Most Canadians believe that imprisonment is an unnecessarily harsh penalty for failing to comply with a mandatory survey, which is why my former colleague Conservative Member of Parliament Joe Preston put forward a private member’s bill to remove it. I am pleased to see this government include removing imprisonment from the Statistics Act.
Finally, this legislation creates a new Canadian statistics advisory council made up of 10 Governor-in-Council appointments. This is a change from the current advisory council which consists of up to 40 appointees.
The current advisory council includes stakeholders ranging from journalists to academics and business owners. These advisory members are not paid for their time and provide advice to the Chief Statistician.
Bill C-36 creates a board of 10 government appointees who will be compensated for their time and will be required to publish annual reports of their activities. Due to the number of appointees, this committee would omit representation from at least three of our provinces and territories.
If the aim of this committee is to represent the views of all Canadians in an inclusive manner, this legislation falls short, especially as it is easy to imagine that it is territorial representation which will be omitted. Further, there is nothing explicit in the legislation that each province must have representation on the committee. In other words, there is nothing to prevent overrepresentation from one region and zero representation from another.
Honourable senators, the intent of this legislation is to provide additional transparency, accountability and independence to Statistics Canada, and that is laudable. However, it can be better. I note the omission in this legislation to have both houses of Parliament approve the appointment of the Chief Statistician, as is the case with the Privacy Commissioner, Official Languages Commissioner, Auditor General and Information Commissioner.
As we witnessed during recent hearings for the position of Official Languages Commissioner, parliamentary oversight is essential to a good outcome. This position of Chief Statistician, if it is to be truly independent, should require the same scrutiny. If this government wants to demonstrate its sincere desire for a more arm’s-length relationship between the agency and the government of the day, it should support such an amendment, that parliamentary approval must be required before appointing a new Chief Statistician.
While it is true that the Chief Statistician is not an officer of Parliament, given the enhanced power, authority and independence being granted by this bill to the position of Chief Statistician, it strikes me as an important and necessary safeguard.
I look forward to an in-depth and thorough study of this bill at committee and hope that any additional and useful amendments or tweaks, if you will, required to make this legislation better will be proposed and supported by senators in this chamber.