The view from Billinudgel

Taking leave of our census
Government overreach is to blame for public suspicion of the census

Image: ABS

My first encounter with the Australian census was in 1971, and even then there were worries about its privacy.

Gordon Barton, the proprietor of Nation Review,  the paper for which I then worked, ran a fierce campaign against what he thought was a dangerous tendency for the government to collect people’s personal details.

I spoke at length to the responsible minister, a somewhat bemused Billy Snedden; neither of us could see what the fuss was about, and 45 years later I still can’t. The census is a necessary and desirable tool of government, a snapshot of the nation to allow administrators to analyse and, it is to be hoped, improve the condition of the citizenry.

It is not, despite the claims of its more paranoid critics, a sinister attempt to impose a ruthless totalitarian regime in which the privacy of the individual is consigned to the files of a modern-day Gestapo. The jackboots did not thunder up the staircases in 1971 and they are not about to now.

There are always those who will be concerned and suspicious about the census, but there are always those who will be concerned and suspicious about fluoridation, vaccination and marauding invaders from Mars. They may be sincere, but they should not be taken seriously.

And the most recent panic – that the Bureau of Statistics will retain our names and addresses for four years rather than one and a half – is no real cause for alarm. If there have been no leaks since the census was inaugurated in 1911, it is not likely that they will suddenly begin now.

But the fact that the doubters exist at all is largely the fault of the government. For the last three years snooping and secrecy in the name of security have been remorselessly ramped up, and the more the spooks get, the more they want.

The attack on civil liberties has been constant and it shows no sign of decreasing. And because this attack has never been explained or excused by the powers that be, the census has become collateral damage – it is now seen as just another assault on the long-suffering public. 

It need not be this way, and it should not; belatedly, the ABS and the politicians have finally realized that they need to reassure the nervous. But it is probably too late, and the more genuine problems about the census, relating mainly from the switch from paper to electronics, have not helped.

If Malcolm Turnbull had not already shredded his credibility as a frank and trustworthy leader he could perhaps have repaired the damage. As it is, he has become just another of those who have caused it. And once again the foundations of our system of government – even of democracy itself – have been undermined, not through malice but through incompetence.

The census should be a celebration; in 1967 we supported a referendum in which, for the first time, Indigenous Australians were counted (quite literally) as citizens. Now we are more inclined to boycott the whole system. And this is as pity and a shame.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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