Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison need to take responsibility for the Census - Doorstop, Canberra





SUBJECT/S: 2016 Census.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Thanks very much for coming along today. My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.

This has been the worst-run Census in Australian history. One of the worst IT debacles Australia has ever seen. Make no mistake, from here the data from the 2016 Census will never be as good as the data from previous Censuses. 

That's because the Turnbull Government has botched their handling of the 2016 Census. The date for the 2016 Census has been set for many years. They have known the Census was coming and yet they failed to do the proper planning. 

Even after the ABS had taken down their website, the Government was still urging Australians to log on to do the Census. That's how incompetently managed this was. Millions of Australians were affected. Millions of hours of Australians' time has been wasted, dealing with a Census that was botched. 

Now the Government is talking about denial of service attacks. Let's be absolutely clear, the first denial of service attack occurred in the year 2000. It was absolutely predictable that a Census which had been publicised widely and about which the Government had boasted on their data impregnability would be the target of hacking attempts. To fail to anticipate those hacking attempts is a failure of the Government. 

Now I know the Government is going to try and blame this on public servants. They are very happy to take the credit for the hard work of public servants in striking a trade deal or preparing a Budget. But when it comes to something going wrong or a hard decision to be explained, the Turnbull Government's first instinct is always to blame the public servants.

We have in the Westminster system a tradition of ministerial responsibility. That says that the Minister takes responsibility for the actions of the Government. The Australian Bureau of Statistics isn't a charity, they are not a corporation. They are a part of Government and that's why the Turnbull Government is answerable for what happened last night. For the time that Australians wasted trying to fill out the Census last night. 

Over the course of the last year, we have had three ministers, at least, responsible for the Australian Census. As best I can tell, the first two – Kelly O'Dwyer and Alex Hawke – didn't utter a peep about the Census. The most recent – Michael McCormack – got the job three weeks ago and waited a full week before seeking a briefing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He's been dismissing Australians' concerns about the Census as "much ado about nothing". Frankly, what we've seen today what a laughable response that is. 

What needs to happen now is the Turnbull Government needs to take responsibilities for its own failings. Malcolm Turnbull two years ago said the real problem with public servants is they don't get over their "fear of failure". He said public servants need to have less of a fear of failure. We can see where that start-up mentality has taken Australia last night. This Census was an utter debacle for many millions of Australians. 

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison need to take responsibility. At the last Census, Wayne Swan was the Treasurer and took direct ministerial responsibility for the operation of the Australian Census. Yet Scott Morrison, who is so quick to call others "bedwetters", is the bedwetter in chief if he can't own up to his responsibility for the Australian Census. There needs to be a full transparent and independent inquiry into what occurred and what could have been avoided if Labor's calls for better resources for the ABS had been heeded. 

No less than 14 times over the last year I've warned about inadequate resourcing to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Labor was deeply concerned with the position of chief statistician was left vacant for nearly a year. So Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison need to own up to what's gone on. They need to answer to the Australian people with a full transparent and open inquiry. Because if you can't run a Census, how can you run a Government?

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The Minister insists that no data has been lost or compromised. Can Australians have faith in that assurance, do you think?

LEIGH: I'm not sure Australians can have faith in very much that the Turnbull Government says about the Census. But even if it's the case that nothing has been lost, a huge amount of time has been wasted and the chances of getting the same response rate in the 2016 Census that we managed in the 2011 Census are now extremely low. This has been utterly botched. The Government's ability to run a Census is a mark of its ability to put in place good public policies in Australia. Again, if they can't manage the Census right, how can they manage more complex arms of Government?

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned this incident will mean Australians not only withhold their names but lie about the information completely?

LEIGH: There could be all kinds of implications that come out of this. Certainly we saw many Australians deeply concerned about the Government's decision to extend the period of which names and addresses were retained. I called repeatedly for the responsible minister to come forward. For a while there we didn't even know who the minister responsible was. 

And finally, too little too late, Michael McCormack put his hand up and said it's my responsibility and the concerns are much ado about nothing. That was an utterly inadequate response then and the Government's response today is still inadequate. We haven't seen anything of the Prime Minister or the Treasurer and we're seeing the minister responsible already trying to blame the public servants. That's not how Westminster Government works.

JOURNALIST: Despite millions of dollars being saved in moving the Census largely online, do you think this suggests that perhaps the traditional paper form is the best way to go?

LEIGH: There will definitely be inquiries into how this could have done better. But the Government should have been preparing for this. It's not like the Census comes out of the blue and catches you unawares. But they're complaining that because the election took place they couldn't properly plan for the Census. That's frankly not good enough. When you're in caretaker mode it means you need to be taking care of the Government. Instead the responsible minister seems to treat caretaker as a time to leave the job to other people. 

They should have been making sure that there was proper oversight of all of the systems in place. Ministers need to be asking questions about the IT back-up systems, about the question as to whether the load management is over an hour or over a single concentrated attack. Ministers need to take direct responsibility not just when things are easy, simple and popular but also when they're hard and complex. Responsible ministers need to drill down to the details and make sure agencies have the resources they need to do the job that Australians expect. The Government failed Australians last night.

JOURNALIST: (INAUDIBLE) the service attacks that came well before midday yesterday, the ABS held a press conference at 3pm and didn't mention them at all until about 8 or 9pm last night the ABS Twitter account was still telling people that the site was working. Should people have known that there was an attack underway on a website that they were putting information into?

LEIGH: Well you're right to point out that the Government's failure to manage these problems is as much of a black mark as their failure to manage the Census itself. And a proper inquiry should also look at the way in which Australians were treated. The notion that the Bureau of Statistics was still running advertisements on all platforms encouraging people to go online and fill out the Census after the website had been shut down speaks to terrible management. The question is, did the responsible minister have the systems in place to prevent that happening? Was the responsible minister asking the right questions to the Government? And all indications right now are that that didn't happen.

JOURNALIST: Do you still support Nick Xenophon's call for a Senate Inquiry into the handling of this?

LEIGH: I expect there's going to be many inquiries that take place into the worst botched Census in Australian history. But the Government should get out there immediately, announce an independent inquiry, announce that it will be an utterly transparent inquiry which looks at the claims that have been made and makes sure that Australians can get to the bottom of this. This should never happen again.

JOURNALIST: Cyber-attacks have taken down some of the biggest computer systems in the world so what you're saying is the lack of attention by the Minister is how this attack happened?

LEIGH: What the Government chose to do this time which was different to the 2011 Census is to announce that the Census was going to be online first. That is, Australians wouldn't have an option of going online but that they would need to apply separately for a paper form. In doing that, they created a larger risk to denial of service attacks than existed in the 2011 Census. And therefore it was particularly incumbent on the Minister and on the Turnbull Government to manage that risk. They've failed to adequately manage the risks; bringing to Government a sort of start-up culture rather than a careful, methodical approach which would have seen Australians be able to fill in their Census last night.

JOURNALIST: Do you still urge Australians to complete their Census and did you manage to submit yours?

LEIGH: I didn't manage to submit my Census. I was on the website after things had crashed. But I do think it's absolutely vital that Australians fill in the Census. It's an instrument which is used for allocating resources across communities. Whether we're looking at funding for homelessness, for targeted employment programs or indeed for local schools, it's Census data that we rely on. It's the biggest information gathering exercise in Australia and regardless of how angry and frustrated Australians are with the Turnbull Government, they should fill in the Census today or whenever the website comes back up.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it was appropriate for the ABS to be tweeting updates about what was happening when a lot of people don't use Twitter?

LEIGH: Well it also goes to the question of how the Government has managed the response to these problems. Clearly, the Bureau of Statistics website itself was down and clearly appropriate contingency plans hadn't been put in place in order to communicate in the event that things went wrong. So it's failure upon failure from a Government which has very clearly shown that it's not up to one of the very basic tasks of Government. Censuses have been run by governments for 2500 years, you'd think they could get it right.

JOURNALIST: How would Labor have handled this whole affair from the outset?

LEIGH: Well you look back to the last Census, which Wayne Swan was the Treasurer and Bill Shorten was the Assistant Treasurer. That was a Census in which the Ministers sought appropriate briefings and in which the Census was carried out smoothly and without the sorts of problems we saw today. It's about asking the right questions at the right times. You can't micromanage every aspect of Government, but Australians do expect their ministers to act responsibility and not simply say "well I only got here three weeks ago, it's someone else's fault".

JOURNALIST: Would you have prevented the retention of names and addresses and also done something about the system protocols beforehand?

LEIGH: Names and addresses as you know have been retained for more than a century. What changed this time was that the period of retention more than doubled from 18 months to four years. That was a policy decision. It's unclear or not whether it went to Cabinet but it was a decision of the Government. And yet I can find no evidence that Kelly O'Dwyer or Alex Hawke began making the case for that change to the Australian people. By the time Michael McCormack was finally brought out of hiding in order to talk about this change, Australians were already getting agitated, were already concerned about the privacy of names and addresses. Responsible Government is about anticipating problems before they arise. 

JOURNALIST: So are you blaming a lack of resources for the problems we've seen in terms of the router being overloaded and the other issues that forced the outage?

LEIGH: I don't have all of that information in front of me. Certainly I would expect that an independent inquiry would look at the question of resourcing but also look at the question of whether if the Bureau of Statistics had had a Chief Statistician in 2014 could some of these problems been averted? Let's remember, the reason the Australian Bureau of Statistics had no chief statistician for nearly a year, was a political choice of the Abbott Government. The Abbott Government had internal political infighting which prevented them filling the job of chief statistician for a year. One imagines that might well have had an impact on the problems that we saw last night.

JOURNALIST: But how much responsibility lies with IBM and the other contractors used to develop this online form and ensure it is secure?

LEIGH: An appropriate inquiry will go into that. But in the end I keep coming back to the doctrine of ministerial accountability. In the Westminster system, the minister takes responsibility. Let's be clear – ministers have resigned for breaches a lot less serious than this one. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s appropriate that the national statistician did a press conference at 3 o'clock – some 3 hours after at least 2 DNS – and didn't bother to tell the public what was going on? Then just a few minutes ago tried to palm it off as just part and parcel of the business?

LEIGH: The way in which the debacles of yesterday were handled are as much a cause for inquiry as the problem itself. The time of Australians was needlessly wasted by a government which not only didn't manage to run the Census, but also was at times propagating misinformation to Australians. Wasting even more time in the process.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that the Statistician, who's had, obviously, a lot of the main carriage of the planning of this, has some cause to offer his resignation? And secondly, the Bureau says it's compulsory and always has been to provide names and addresses. A previous Statistician very strongly denies that that is compulsory and indeed says that it's not legal to try and compel. Do you have a view on that?

LEIGH: The retention of names and addresses is something which has certainly occurred in the past, but my view is that-

JOURNALIST: But the collection - is it compulsory or not compulsory to provide names and addresses?

LEIGH: My understanding of the law is that it’s compulsory. What changed this time around was that the retention period more than doubled. And that change wasn't explained properly to the Australian people. I do think that this government is always quick to take credit for public servants' work when things go well, but quick to blame the public servants when things don't go so well.

JOURNALIST: But there does seem some cause for blame here, do you think that he should offer his resignation?

LEIGH: It’s a question of ministerial accountability. In our system, ministers are accountable for their decisions. And in this case, you've got a Turnbull Government which failed to appoint a Chief Statistician for a year. Which had multiple ministers for the Bureau of Statistics, who essentially sat on their hands. If there was a gold medal for sitting on your hands, the Turnbull Government would win it. The fact is that they've failed to do the basic preparatory work which would have seen last night's census run smoothly. This lot are always looking for someone else to blame when things go wrong, but ministerial accountability says that they need to take it on the chin.

No other questions? Thanks very much everyone.




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