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Census 2016: little thought before changes made Featured

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is required by law to conduct a periodical count of the country's population, with the reason being that it guarantees electoral representation.

A High Court decision determined "that the Constitution required that the population of the various States needed to be ascertained during the life of each ordinary Parliament for the purpose of determining the number of members from each State in the House of Representatives".

This appears to have escaped the current head of the ABS, David Kalisch, when he decided to play with public expectations by retaining names and addresses in the census and tying them to individuals' data, first indefinitely, and later for four years.

It has been said that if George W. Bush had walked down to any public library and made himself aware of the history of the foreign occupation of Afghanistan, then the whole world would have been spared a great deal of misery.

Similarly, if Kalisch had bothered to read a document drafted after the 1996 census — and one that is present on the website of the organisation he heads then this year's census would have passed without any bother. (The quoted material above is from this very document.)

After the 1996 count, a survey was done by AGB McNair to ascertain public attitudes about the five-yearly exercise. The key findings were:

  • 89% of respondents agreed that "Census forms should be destroyed to protect people's privacy and confidentiality";
  • 67% disagreed that "Census forms should be stored for release in future for research purposes";
  • Between 34% and 45% said they would be less likely to complete a census form if forms were kept for release at some time in the future;
  • Between 38% and 49% said the information on the census form would be less accurate if forms were kept for release; and
  • 73% disagreed that "Researchers should be given access to Census forms including names and addresses".

Is Kalisch aware of these statistics? Or has he chosen to turn a blind eye to them?

No survey has been done since then to understand the attitude of the population as far as the census is concerned. Yet Kalisch, like a bull in a china shop, decided to go where nobody has gone before.

Former ABS head Bill McLennan says the organisation, like many others in the public sector, suffers from what he calls "political amnesia". During a chat early this morning, he pointed me to a Quarterly Essay with the same title, written by the AFR's Laura Tingle.

McLennan points out that no longer are changes tested before being implemented; he puts this down to a lack of institutional memory.

It is not as though Kalisch had no precedents to guide him. In 2006, a similar proposal to retain names and addresses was dropped after a damning privacy impact report by Nigel Waters, a privacy expert.

The document referred to at the start of this article is worth reading in its entirety.

It points out that federal funds are allocated to states and territories based on ABS population estimates and under-estimating one state's share of the total population by just 0.1% (about 18,000 people in 1996) could reduce that state's allocation by $21 million per annum. (Now the amount would be much more.)

Incorrect population estimates could also affect the distribution of funds to local government authorities.

Also affected by inaccurate census data would be: urban planning and infrastructure development, inter- and intra-state population movements, targeting of labour market programmes, and many resource allocation and service delivery programmes.

One has to wonder: what was the source of the advice that Kalisch followed to jeopardise the quality of census data? Or did he come up with the idea himself?


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the sitecame into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.


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