This Census Deserves Censure
9 August 2016 was Census Day. Despite the fact that the Census has been
run since 1911 with strong public support, this census was different. In the
lead up to, the day of, and in its wake the 2016 Census was mired in
That controversy centred around:
- the preparedness of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to
seamlessly and securely execute what was to be Australia’s first predominantly
the ABS’ response when problems emerged; and
privacy concerns as to the collection, retention and use of names.
In the aftermath of the Census, the Government instigated an inquiry
into the preparedness and information security aspects of the Census, while the
Senate instigated a much broader inquiry.
The Committee, supported by the Secretariat and submissions from the
public, private, not-for-profit sectors and a number of individuals, has
produced a comprehensive report and made a number of sensible recommendations.
Whilst we broadly support the recommendations of the Committee we
believe those recommendations do not go far enough to resolve key elements of
the privacy concerns that have been raised.
It’s all in the Name
A lot of concern centred about the collection of names by the ABS,
particularly when coupled with plans by the ABS to link Census data with other
administrative data sets and to create a
Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD).
As the Committee report indicates there has been inadequate consultation
over the expanded information gathering and use of that information for Census
2016. We consider the process to have been woefully inadequate, lacked
robustness and independent assessment. This in turn has shaken public
confidence in the Census. There is, at the very least, ambiguity as to whether
the ABS has the power to demand the provision of a person’s name for the
The issue of the necessity to provide a name needs to be resolved
definitively to avoid the same controversy arising for future Censuses. There a
number of ways in which this could occur:
- the ABS could state that the provision of names in the Census is
a test case could be run to have the matter settled judicially; or
Preferably, with a legislative amendment to the Census and Statistics
Act 1905, to make clear that the provision of a person’s name is voluntary.
There should be a legislative amendment to the Census and Statistics Act 1905
to make clear that the provision of a person’s name is voluntary.
Changes, Damned Changes and Statistics
The Committee examined issues associated with the ABS linking the Census
data with other administrative data sets and plans to create a SLCD.
Was the Parliament properly informed of the changes the ABS was
intending? The Committed noted that:
Under section 6(3) of the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act
1975 the ABS must lay before both houses of Parliament ‘each new proposal for
the collection of information for statistical purposes’ before its
implementation ... The ABS tabled in the Senate ‘Proposal No. 6 of 2016: 2016
Census of Population and Housing, and Post Enumeration Survey’ (Proposal) on 17
March 2016. The Proposal made no mention of names and addresses being retained,
nor did it mention that this represents a break from past censuses. The ABS
appears to have been firmly of the belief that the changes around name and
address information were an incremental change that did not require
In dealing with this issue, the Committee went on to recommend that the
ABS ‘update its internal guidelines to make clear that consultation requires
active engagement with the non-government and private sector.’ It made no
recommendations with respect to Parliamentary oversight.
The changes sought by the ABS are so significant that they must be
brought before the Parliament for proper consideration as to the concerns and
merits associated with them. Crikey’s Bernard Keane summed it up when he said
this Census has gone from “snapshot to surveillance”.
Prior to any linking of Census data to other administrative data sets or
to the adoption and implementation of SLCD, such changes must be brought to the
Parliament for its consideration and approval.
Confidence and Trust
The Census is an important tool for good government.
Because of the intrusive nature of the Census the public must have
absolute confidence and trust in those charged with its execution. That trust
and confidence has been damaged as a result of the 2016 Census and the
Government must act definitively to restore it.
The additional recommendations that we have made will go a long way to
restoring that confidence and trust.
Senator Nick Xenophon Senator
Senator for South Australia Senator
for South Australia
Navigation: Previous Page | Contents | Next Page