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Census 2016: inquiry achieves what it was meant to

The 112-page report into the failed 2016 census, tabled by the Senate Economics Reference Committee on Thursday, presumably brings to an end — for the year at least — the unedifying tale of how bureaucrats and tech firms bungled what should be an orderly count of the populace.

If anything, we knew much more about the census after it was bungled than before the exercise was launched. There were 90 submissions to the inquiry which resulted in this 112-page report, and together they provided a surfeit of fact and opinion into a process that few even noticed in previous years.

Now it remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will stick by his brave boast that "heads will roll", one presumes of those who have been responsible for the farce that eventuated on 9 August.

But then Turnbull has been known for making brave and foolhardy statements and conveniently forgetting about them when it is inconvenient. Let's not forget that this is the brave Sydneysider who was once duped by a man known as Gordon Grech.

This is the man who once proclaimed that data retention was an evil, and then promptly stood silent when data retention laws were passed in the nation's parliament. Nuff said.

Much as the Senate report's authors would like to see funding restored to the Australian Bureau of Statistics so that the next census — if we have one — is run smoothly, that is not going to happen. For some reason, funding is being cut for everything apart from the politicians' own perks. Government spending keeps rising but it appears that there are several new areas that need the money. The essentials are no longer the essentials, it seems.

A comprehensive and accurate count of the people who reside within the nation's borders once served as the basis for planning and allocation of funds; now it looks like the census is more important as a source of data that the ABS can sell to all takers after suitable de-identification.

That such de-identification is really not possible does not seem to bother those who are technically ignorant. The issue is being solved by making re-identification a crime. Sure, who said you cannot legislate for everything? Certainly not that oracle, George Brandis, the attorney-general and font of wisdom on metadata.

Australia's chief statistician David Kalisch has not come out of this exercise smelling of roses, but it is unlikely that the man will lose his job. While the Senate report recommended that he be treated like a school kid and kept on a leash, it did not call for his head.

The talk of heads rolling has only emanated from Turnbull so one need have no fear that anyone, even the lowliest clerk at the ABS, will receive a pink slip.

So what has the whole exercise achieved? Just as much as any other inquiry has in the past, or will in the future. It gives everyone a false sense of security, satisfies the critics, and maintains the status quo. All the guilty parties knew what the outcome would be and were prepared to put on suitably guilty appearances, look demurely at the floor, and cop a few words of criticism.

The punters who paid for the whole exercise have not even been told how much IBM paid to settle things with the government. That's a measure of the contempt the politicians have for the people; as long as corporate flacks are kept happy, things are perceived as not having gotten out of control.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.