Statistical error
What has gone wrong with the census?

It started quietly enough. In a press release put out on the Friday before last Christmas, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that it had “decided to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census”. (In the past it kept names and addresses for 18 months for administrative purposes; it will now keep them for four years.) This was in order “to enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data”. In other words, it would allow the ABS to connect the census data with other information the government already has, such as education, health and tax records.

The announcement didn’t make much of a splash, but over time disquiet about the privacy implications has grown. There is concern about what the information is needed for, and what it may be used for in future. At time of writing, at least five members of the federal Senate have announced publicly that they will not be filling in their names on the census form. Today it was also revealed that the ABS has discussed using the names and addresses to create “new products” and meet a “business need”.

On top of this, the ABS has decided to shift away from paper census forms in favour of online data collection. This has raised a host of other concerns about the security of the online system – some experts have said that a data breach is inevitable. It’s one thing to worry about what the ABS will do with your data, but quite another to worry what hackers might do with it.

There has also been an array of technical issues. While you are entitled to request a paper copy of the census, the census phone line is currently jammed, and there have been reports today that the website is struggling with the volume of people attempting to complete the form.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the mess has been the inadequate government reaction to it. ABS chief David Kalisch and PM Malcolm Turnbull have been dismissive. Christopher Pyne says critics are engaging in “tinfoil hat” politics.

Michael McCormack, the minister responsible for the census, says that it is “no worse than Facebook”, which is a bit of a concern because Facebook is well known for its arbitrary, constantly shifting privacy policies and general cavalier attitude towards its users’ information. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the giant social-network-cum-advertising-seller, believes that privacy is no longer a social norm and has expressed deep contempt for his users. He hardly seems like a model for a government to follow.

Trust in our elected officials is lower than it has been in a long time. The decades-long decline of the major parties as links between the people at large and the machinery of power continues, revealing itself in the tragicomic shambles of our federal politics since 2010 or so. The idea that our government faces a looming crisis of legitimacy is no longer a fringe belief. Disengagement is rife, as shown in the record low turnout at the recent election.

But so far our faith in the more neutral institutions of the state – and has there been any institution more blandly, benevolently neutral than the ABS? – has survived more or less intact. We even like them, for the most part. Census night has had a small fond niche in many Australian hearts, next to the election-day sausage sizzle.

But high-handed interventions and technocratic extensions of power like the census changes will put paid to that residual goodwill if no action is taken. And it may be that our faith in future governments to use our information wisely is also wearing thin.  

Government should be taking notice here; if nothing else, the quality of the information in the census may well now be compromised.

All of this presents a conundrum for the civic-minded citizen who would like to ensure that government has the information it needs to provide services. What to do? Fill in the form online tonight? Fudge some data? Call for a paper form, and leave your name off it? Wait and see what happens? There’s still time to decide. Despite the advertising campaign telling us that tonight is the time to “pause and make a difference”, the ABS will still be accepting entries for another six weeks.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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