The doctrine of ministerial accountability means that Government needs to take responsibility - Transcript

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

RADIO INTERVIEW

ABC RN DRIVE

TUESDAY, 25 OCTOBER 2016

SUBJECT/S: Senate’s Census Inquiry; Solicitor-General’s resignation.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. This falls very much in his portfolio. Welcome to RN Drive.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Thanks Patricia, good to be with you.

KARVELAS: You say Labor wants answers. You got them today though haven't you? IBM's systems failed – they've admitted that today. How can you blame the Minister, or even the Prime Minister, given it seems very clearly now that IBM's systems were at the centre of all of this.

LEIGH: One way of answering that question is to flip it around and ask who'd be taking the credit if the Census had gone well? I think the answer very clearly is that Malcolm Turnbull would be standing up crowing about how successful his Census was. When things go badly in a Westminster system Ministers need to take responsibility.

It's still quite unclear what oversight procedures were put in place by the four ministers who over the course of three years were responsible for the Census. It’s unclear what impact having the position of Chief Statistician unfilled for nearly a year had on the Census. The cost of trying to fix-up the botching of Census night is at least $30 million, perhaps more. That's money that could easily have been spent on schools or on hospitals or indeed on other parts of the Bureau of Statistics. So this has come at a heavy cost for Australia – the worst run Census since we began taking them.

KARVELAS: The Australian Statistician David Kalisch says the responsibility of the Census falls with the ABS. No one will deny there have been problems but it is the ABS that conducts the count. It's not the Minister or the Prime Minister.

LEIGH: Well indeed. And it's public servants who prepare budgets and it's public servants who negotiate trade deals. But when it comes to taking credit or responsibility, it's ministers who are meant to step up. What always strikes me about this government Patricia is that they're willing to step-up and take credit when things go well but when things go badly they're all about attacking independent office holders and public servants. You've seen it in the attacks on Gillian Triggs. You've seen it in the extraordinary attacks on Paul Grimes. You've seen it in the attacks on Justin Gleeson and the notion that Justin Gleeson has to step-down is to me deeply shocking and deeply damaging to a great Australian institution in the Solicitor-General. 

KARVELAS: You said earlier today that Labor showed how a Census could be run – in reference to the last survey in 2011 – but the ABS is an independent statutory office. Are you saying that this should change? Labor didn't run the 2011 Census, again was it the ABS?

LEIGH: Labor made sure that the appropriate oversight mechanisms were put in place, Patricia. In this case there was a significant change taking place to the Census: there was a doubling of the period in which names and addresses were retained, which was ticked by the responsible minister but never discussed with the Australian people leading up to Census night. This is the first time that by default, Australians were expected to go online and fill out the Census. Ministers don't appear to have taken any responsibility there for making sure that that went well, that the inevitable Denial of Service attacks that everyone knew would come were buffeted away and appropriate systems were put in place. The Ministers seemed to have a hands-off approach. The Minister responsible, Michael McCormack took a week to get a briefing on the Census and now today it appears he was more interested in small business statistics than the Census that was just around the corner.

KARVELAS: OK we found that nobody lost their job at IBM over this. Should heads roll at IBM? Do you expect that? Should the Government expect that?

LEIGH: I'm sure the Government would love it if they could find a corporation to blame.

KARVELAS: Hang on a minute, the corporation was to blame. They admitted it?

LEIGH: The doctrine of ministerial accountability means that Government needs to take responsibility.

KARVELAS: Sure but hang on, they paid IBM to do this and they made a mistake that they've apologised for, so how can they not be responsible – they've admitted that they did it?

LEIGH: Patricia it's about whether you've got the appropriate systems in place, whether you've made sure that there are systems in place to repel denial of service attacks and whether the appropriate geoblocking was in place. I don't think that's something that's just a trivial detail to be left off to public servants, I actually think Ministers should have been involved in the conversations over whether geoblocking should have been in place right from the get go.

KARVELAS: Alright I see that that's your point of view, but do you think IBM should also be taking more responsibility? Taxpayers have paid IBM to fulfil a role that they've clearly bungled. 

LEIGH: Absolutely. Certainly IBM let us down there but let's not let that allow the Government to get off the hook.

KARVELAS: Should they be taking more action, that's really what I'm asking?

LEIGH: Certainly we ought to be looking to see whether some of the additional taxpayer money that has been spent can be recovered. It's $30 million and counting. Then of course, there's the millions of hours of Australians' time that was wasted. You know, you price that out at the average wage and again you're talking the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars that's wasted from people sitting there on Census night hitting ‘refresh’, or worse still doing the entire Census and then discovering that the website had crashed on them. All of that is immensely frustrating, erodes trust in our statistical agencies, and is just a waste of Australians’ time. The Census is a core Government responsibility, it's there in the Constitution in Section 51(xi), and the Government can't pretend that it's just an independent agency or just a private corporation who ought to take responsibility.

KARVELAS: OK, just a final question on another issue. The Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has been doing the rounds today across many media outlets talking about the resignation of the Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson. Labor spent a lot of airtime on this issue – at least part of this must have contributed to Gleeson's decision to go.

LEIGH: I think Justin Gleeson's decision to go was based on the notion that he was being placed in an untenable situation by the Attorney-General. The Solicitor-General ought to be an independent role and if you speak to any senior lawyer in Australia, they will tell you they are shocked by what is going on here. We've had past Solicitors-General including Gavan Griffith speak out about the truly appalling treatment of Justin Gleeson. He did nothing wrong. He simply found that the partisan meddling of George Brandis was ultimately too much for him. That position of Solicitor-General is a vital one in our constitutional system, Patricia. We've only had 11 Solicitors-General since Federation – think about that. George Brandis walks in there and for his narrow partisan interests manages to trash the career of a great Australian servant of the legal community and the general public. 

KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh, many thanks for your time this evening.

LEIGH: Thanks, Patricia.


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