ABS collections under threat - doorstop, Parliament House

ANDREW LEIGH:  Thank you for coming along today, my name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.

From the Abbott and Turnbull Governments we've seen nothing but dysfunction when it comes to Australia's statistical collections. Prior to the last Census, there was significant community concern about the Turnbull Government's proposal to increase the retention period for names and addresses - effectively doubling it. The Government did nothing to allay those community concerns. Three Ministers did nothing. Then we had the incompetence of the 2016 Census, a pretty good contender for the worst managed Census anywhere in the world in 2300 years.

Australians were told they could go online and fill out the Census, and encouraged to do so. When they did, the website was taken down and the time of millions of Australians was wasted on Census night. That's led to the waste of significant amounts of money as the Australian Bureau of Statistics has scrambled to follow up. Labor has already been asking questions about how much additional taxpayer money has been spent trying to increase the Census response rate, and we will continue to pursue that question in Senate estimates next week.

We know the Abbott Government ripped $50 million out of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in its infamous 2014 budget. And we know the approach of the Abbott-Turnbull Government toward statistics has been one of a Government that just doesn't care about the facts. A government which as Joh Bjelke-Petersen once said, would prefer we lived in peace and tranquillity and didn't know anything. They think Australians just can't handle the truth.

Then today, we have the announcement from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that it's unable to collect the statistics that it is legally required to do so, and which its users want. We now see the threat that a number of significant Australian Bureau of Statistics collections may cease. We have the possibility that the Australian Bureau of Statistics will cease collecting data on housing and lending finance. Cease collecting data on international trade.

We have the possibility that the Australian Bureau of Statistics will cease its collection of data on foreign ownership of agricultural businesses; land and water entitlements,  cease its collection of crime victim statistics, cease its collection of data on early childhood education and care.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has flagged up the possibility it might not be able to continue the patient experience survey. The survey of tourist accommodation. The internet activity survey. Regional economic data. New motor vehicle sales.

Now you can understand, in many of these cases, why the Turnbull Government might not want Australians to know the full truth. Given their haphazard approach to the National Broadband Network, they probably don't want surveys showing how dissatisfied Australians are with their internet speeds. Given their war on Medicare, they probably don't want the patient experience survey. Given that they have no plan for housing affordability, you can see why the Turnbull Government would be pretty relaxed about cutting data collection on housing finance. But Australians are anything but relaxed about this. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is a great national institution and it deserves better than a Turnbull Government that is cutting away its ability to collect the data that Australians rely on.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: How important is the retail trade and the housing reports [inaudible]?

LEIGH: Well these are critical figures. As you well know, Shane, the retail data is often a leading indicator of whether there's an economic downturn coming along; used by small businesses locally to think about where they might set up a new outlet. We know the housing finance statistics are critical too - those housing finance numbers tell us the debt load that Australians are facing and also give us an indicator of how the housing markets themselves are tracking. To rip away those statistics is another admission the Turnbull Government has no plan on housing affordability. They can say 'no, no, no' to Labor's carefully calibrated plans on negative gearing and the Capital Gains Tax discount, but they have no strategy to make houses more affordable in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Last year, the ABS threatened - flew up the flagpole - the idea of not running the Census and got $250 million out of Joe Hockey. Do you think this is another attempt to wrangle some more funds out of the Government?

LEIGH: I'm sure the Government would like to blame the bureaucrats on this one, but the blame squarely falls at the feet of Turnbull Government ministers. I mentioned before the $50 million cut that was inflicted on the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the 2014 Budget. Ministers in general have taken a hands-off approach. Minister McCormack waited weeks after getting his portfolio to get his first briefing on the Census, a Census that was then just weeks away. And under Ministers O'Dwyer and Hawke, there was no attempt to engage with the community on the Census. So no - this isn't an issue of the Australian Bureau of Statistics management. This is an issue of the political direction and resourcing available from the Turnbull Government.

JOURNALIST: Doesn't Labor have to take some responsibility because of the funding cuts that were inflicted by Labor during its last term in office on the ABS?

LEIGH: Let's just look at the track record. Look at the Census in 2011, in which Bill Shorten was the responsible Minister. That's the Census with one of the highest response rates of any Australian Census. It ran very smoothly. Many Australians filled it out online. The Census that stands in stark contrast is the badly botch 2016 Census. As I said, possibly the worst-run Census in 2,300 years. 

No more questions? Thanks everyone.



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