OTTAWA - Ask Canadians to fill out a long census form for the good of the country and they'll rush to grab their blue or black ballpoint pens -- at least that's how Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sees it.
   "My experience with Canadians is that when you ask them to do something for the good of the country, they'll do it voluntarily," Flaherty told The Canadian Press over the weekend.
   The finance minister is the latest member of the Tory cabinet to defend the Conservative government's decision to scrap the long census and replace it with an optional one.
   Flaherty said he thinks census data can be collected voluntarily without being compromised.
   Most people filled out the last census in 2006. Statistics Canada says the response rate was near or above 98 per cent in most places.
   About 435,000 households were missed in the last census, the agency says. Of those, some 160,000 were supposed to fill out the long form.
   Statistics Canada says collection agents weren't able to "make contact" with most of the unresponsive households.
   A newspaper report suggested Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement lobbied Prime Minister Stephen Harper to leave the census alone.
   Not so, says Flaherty.
   "I supported the decision that was made and I do support it," he said.
   "I agree that this kind of data is relevant, but we can collect it voluntarily. We don't have to threaten people with jail or fines in order to collect this data."
   It's a well-worn Tory talking point on the census change. Clement and Quebec MP Maxime Bernier have made similar remarks.
   Flaherty -- who has been on vacation -- said he has yet to hear from business leaders on the issue.
   But the list is long of those who oppose the Conservatives' census plan. Provincial and municipal governments, social scientists, religious groups, medical researchers, economists, minority-rights advocates and some business groups have decried the move.
   The country's former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, quit last week over the government's decision to make the long census optional.
   Sheikh made it clear that he could not defend the government's directive.
   "I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census," he said.
   "It can not."
   The census forms the backbone of the federal government's policy work. Statistics Canada says 38 departments pay nearly $80 million for census data. The agency wouldn't provide a breakdown of how much each department pays.
   "Information from the census has been used to support the development or monitoring of programs and policies or to support legislative requirements," the agency said in an email last week.
   "Content for the census is determined based on meeting these requirements."
   Statistics Canada has won plaudits from the world's top statisticians for the rigorous checks and balances it employs to keep its data from being tainted by political whims.
   One need only look to Europe to see the pitfalls of politicians meddling with data.
   The European Union blamed government interference and shoddy accounting practices for serious errors in Greek deficit data last year.
   Fudged deficit projections by Greece's statistics agency helped bring on Europe's debt crisis, which shook world markets as well as confidence in the euro.
   A condition of Greece's bailout package was that the country to create an independent statistics agency before it received any rescue loans.
   Other European officials have called for greater autonomy for national statistical agencies. The chair of Italy's statistics institute has said agencies like his should have the same independence as central banks.