MURAL HALL, PARLIAMENT HOUSE
THURSDAY, 4 AUGUST 2016
SUBJECT/S: 2016 census
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: We’re now five days out from the Census, and many Australians are concerned about the Government's decision to increase the period for which names and addresses are kept from eighteen months to four years. Labor's been asking the simple question: who's responsible for the Census?
Finally, late yesterday, we got an answer. Michael McCormack fronted a shambolic press conference at 5pm yesterday afternoon. And instead of offering Australians answers and reassurances, he gave them a litany of excuses.
First, he said that the Government was in caretaker mode. He seems to think that caretaker mode is a period in which you just take off and leave things to take care of themselves. Second, he said he'd only had the job for two weeks, but then went onto admit that the first time he sought a briefing on the Census was last week. He left it a full week before getting a briefing on Australia's largest national information-gathering exercise.
Third, we got from Michael McCormack the excuse that it's all the bureaucrats’ fault. That's just not good enough. In Australia we have a doctrine of ministerial responsibility. That says public servants are responsible for the implementation of policy and Ministers for explaining the rationale for policy changes. Ideas may well flow up from public servants, but the ministers themselves are responsible for answering questions about that policy change. Coalition ministers are pretty quick to claim credit for the work of public servants. Whether that's work on an infrastructure project or a trade deal, they'll be there smiling and ready to cut the ribbon. But when it comes to explaining complex policy, Coalition ministers are missing in action.
Michael McCormack has ministerial responsibility for the Census and must do better than he did yesterday. Not offer a litany of excuses as to why changes to the Census are somebody else's problem, but actually come out and explain why the change has been made. Reassure Australians about the privacy of their data. Make absolutely clear that he understands the detail of what's been changed, that he supports the policy change and that Australians can be reassured. This process of buck-passing to the public servants suggests that Michael McCormack - likeable bloke that he is - isn't the ‘Minister for the ABS’, he's the ‘Minister for Blaming the ABS’.
Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Helen Polley said this morning that we should delay the Census. Do you think that's a good idea?
LEIGH: Labor doesn't support delaying the Census. In our view, delays to the Census would cost millions of dollars and would mean that the national information gathering that is the Census would be massively disrupted. We just need Coalition ministers to do their job. To come out and explain the changes that have been made to the Census, rather than attempting to hide behind the coat-tails of the public servants.
JOURNALIST: But how appropriate is it for a Labor Senator to be drumming up unnecessary fear or confusion about the Census, and calling for it to be delayed, when, as you have said, people shouldn’t be boycotting the Census and we shouldn’t be delaying the Census?
LEIGH: We shouldn't boycott the Census, we shouldn't delay it. It's too important to be damaged. What we need are Coalition ministers to explain the changes. It's not hard. It means that your job as a minister isn't simply to be there smiling when things go well, but also to be there making the strong public policy arguments when Australians are confused and angry. And they are confused and angry right now. I had a constituent call my electorate office today who was from the electorate of Wentworth. She had called the Prime Minister's office and gotten no information. No assurances from the Prime Minister's office, so now she was contacting my office to find out what's going on. It's just not good enough. Michael McCormack needs to do his job.
JOURNALIST: Can we also talk about what are the benefits of it being online? Will we get the results straight away, or that kind of thing?
LEIGH: Moving the Census online is a natural change, what's important though is that those who don't have access to a computer are able to get the paper-based forms. From the information that has been coming to my office, and that of other Labor electorate offices, that doesn't seem to be happening. We've had hundreds of calls from people who have waited too long on hold to the line they need to call in order to get their paper form. It appears the Government hasn't allocated enough resources to make sure the ABS hotline works quickly enough. So yes, online makes sense, but it's got to be done more diligently than this Government appears to have executed the Census.
JOURNALIST: And what blame should be put on the ABS here, because they have been warned by a former Chief Statistician that there were issues with the Census quite a while ago and they would need to explain them. Now obviously we had the federal election, but all that's happened, in terms of their comms teams, is that everyone has just received these notices in the mail. Where have they been? They are a statutory authority, they're different to a normal department, where have they been in terms of communicating?
LEIGH: Let's not get into this game of blaming the bureaucrats. Michael McCormack would have you believe that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is like a corporation or a charity. It's not. It's an arm of Government. And when policy changes are made, Ministers need to explain those policy changes. Michael McCormack and his predecessor ministers and parliamentary secretaries are responsible for explaining changes. This decision was made some time ago. It could have been explained through the caretaker period. It could have been explained after the election. It shouldn't have needed to wait until six days before the Census, before Michael McCormack stood up yesterday to give, frankly, a buck-passing press conference rather than clearly articulate the changes that the Government has made.
JOURNALIST: The ABS couldn't have done anything more? They've done a perfect job at communicating?
LEIGH: The ABS shouldn't be blamed for the failings of Turnbull Government ministers. The Bureau of Statistics is engaged in running the Census, the biggest ever Census in Australian history. They are too busy to be doing the jobs of lazy and absent Turnbull Government ministers.