ABC NEWS 24
MONDAY, 1 AUGUST 2016
SUBJECT/S: 2016 census; Reserve Bank interest rates.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: In just over a week, 24 million Australians will be accounted for in the Census. This is the first time the vast majority of census forms will be filled out online. The Bureau of Statistics will also be allowed to keep personal information, like names and addresses, for up to four years. Labor's Shadow Treasurer Andrew Leigh is arguing that the Government should be doing more to explain the process and the privacy protections that go with them. He's been talking to national affairs correspondent, Greg Jennett.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I think it makes sense, Greg. We're doing many more things online and it reduces the person power required by census-takers in big cities, so they can deploy more of those resources into remote areas. And particularly in counting homeless Australians. Homelessness is a huge policy issue, so we need to be making sure there are enough talented census numerators engaging with the homeless population on census night.
GREG JENNETT: Sound in policy terms, but you are expressing some concerns about the advocacy and the explanatory role that ministers are playing. I am hearing public information advertisements on the radio and I think maybe also on television. What is wrong with leaving it to professionally designed advertising campaigns?
LEIGH: The Turnbull government has made a policy change to increase the period for which names are kept. There has been arguments either way on this, but I have been surprised that the Turnbull Government has left it almost entirely to the Bureau of Statistics to make that argument. One reason might be that it is not even been clear who is running the census. It was apparently Alex Hawke when he was a Parliamentary Secretary and then Kelly O'Dwyer for a period and apparently now at the end of last week Michael McCormack was appointed. This is not a very good way of running a Government when you have got the census just eight days away.
JENNETT: That is a criticism of the communication role. What of the substance of the issues at play here to do with the duration that private information, like name and address, are held for?
LEIGH: Well, the Bureau of Statistics has certainly made a case there and I would urge Australians to accurately fill in the census. I think these calls for boycotting are absolutely wrong-headed because spoiling the census hurts all Australians. It is used to allocate resources across communities. Accurate census information is actually particularly important for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
JENNETT: Are you satisfied that enough safeguards are in place just to explain to people, the information is now going be held for up to four years, instead of up to 18 months. Do you think the safe guards are there to ensure that the retention of that information is done properly and safely?
LEIGH: Well, the Bureau of Statistics has a strong track record in data retention and they have also got an Act which provides significant privacy protections. But I can see why people are concerned and I have been surprised, frankly, Greg, that we haven't seen the Turnbull Government out there making the case for this change. This extension from 18 months to four years. If they believe it is a sensible change, then get out there and make the case to Australians. The Bureau of Statistics is too busy running a census to actually be doing the job of Turnbull Government ministers.
JENNETT: Is it the case, though, that a large number of Australians may be perfectly relaxed about the retention of some of this information? I think there is a scheme called the census time capsule that allows people voluntarily to give permission for the retention of this information. So how much of an issue is it if the number is as large as 60 per cent?
LEIGH: Certainly, if you look at the United States where this has been done for over a century, genealogists now go back and look at the census forms of their ancestors. You can see those arguments there, Greg. It is just the fact that the Bureau of Statistics has been dragged away from the work of administering the census to do what is ultimately the work of making an argument for a policy change. That is the job of good ministers and we don't have a good minister out there making this case, as they should be.
JENNETT: Alright. Let's see if they step up the communication side of that in the next week. Also, on the Shadow Assistant Treasurer portfolio that you manage - what do you think a cut in interest rates tomorrow by the Reserve Bank Board would say about the fragility or strength of the economy right now?
LEIGH: It would certainly be a worry, wouldn't it? The market is suggesting there is a 2 in 3 chance of a rate cut down to 1.5 per cent. Given that former Treasurer Hockey described a rate one per cent above our current rate as being ‘emergency’ levels, then who knows how best to describe this rate? It reflects the fact that our economy is not serving many low and middle income Australians. Living standards have fallen over the last three years since the Coalition won office. Wage growth is the slowest it has been in 30 years. Inequality is at a 75-year high. Home ownership at a 60-year low. Many of the numbers in the Australian economy are going in absolutely the wrong direction.
JENNETT: It wouldn't be an aid to home ownership to take advantage of a cut, particularly for those who are on the brink of making that decision?
LEIGH: Well, I don't think that has been the pattern over the course of the last decade. As rates have again down, they tended to have as much impact on investors, as they have on first-home owners. There is, of course, this policy that APRA has had in place in order to rein in the growth rate of banks’ investor loan books. The fact is that Australia's tax concessions for negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount are the most generous tax breaks for property speculators in the world. So it is not surprising that property speculators are increasingly crowding out first-home buyers and those first-home buyers are now wondering whether or not that Australian dream of being able to buy your own home is going to be beyond them.