The Turnbull Government Doesn't Want to Do the Hard Work - Radio Interview





SUBJECT/S: 2016 Census.

LUKE BONA: Dr Andrew Leigh, Shadow Minister for Competition and Productivity, is on the line here on 2UE. Good morning to you.


BONA: Good. Before we jump into this and the Census, did you watch it?

LEIGH: No I didn't, unfortunately. One of the downsides of running around doing regular political duties, but sounds like an extraordinary game.

BONA: The tournament was extraordinary, it was just fantastic. Anyway, as John Stanley said: 'Bleatherslow shmetherslow'.

LEIGH: [Laughter]

BONA: Listen, today is the day. It's finally arrived. It's Census night tonight. And I'm sure that many of my listeners probably still don't have their forms and that many of them probably still hold grave concerns about the safety of our personal information, and it is a reasonable fear to have Andrew, isn't it?

LEIGH: I think the concern has arisen in large part just because the government has left it to the Bureau of Statistics – not just to run the Census – but also to explain the policy changes that they've put in place. They've decided to extend, from 18 months to 4 years, the period for which names and addresses are retained. But they haven't done the work over the last few months to articulate why that's a good idea. That's why you're getting so many Australians being concerned about the Census because the government has essentially dropped the ball.

BONA: Well, I just think they've done a really bad job of selling this. There's so much confusion out there. All I have to do now is say: 'Give us a call, 13 13 32'.  The phone will go into meltdown, and it's tonight.

LEIGH: Absolutely, Luke. And look, the Census is extremely important. It determines the allocation of resources across communities. It determines how we understand a whole lot of problems in Australia. When I was an economics professor I used to use Census data, and you rely on that data to be accurate. I certainly don't think anyone should be spoiling the Census or failing to fill it out accurately ­– to do that is to hurt your neighbours and your community.

But I do think that people are right to be cross that the government has failed to articulate why they have made these changes to the Census. If there was a gold medal for sitting on your hands, the Turnbull government would be winning it every time.

BONA: Ok, now the minister in charge is Michael McCormack. Now, let's talk about the privacy issue. Michael McCormack has said that: 'If people are happy to give personal information to Facebook and Twitter, Why not the Census?'

What do you make of those comments?

LEIGH: I don't think that is an appropriate comparison. I think people can opt-in to Facebook, whereas the Census is something that's a responsibility of all Australians. My own view is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is a trusted national institution. But when the government chooses to make changes, as they've done in this case, they need to make their case for that. Michael McCormack waited a full week after getting this portfolio to even get a briefing on the Census. If that had been me I would have hit the ground running, immediately starting to make the case to Australians to ensure that we didn't have this sort of community concern that we can see coming out today.

BONA: I spoke to Liz Bolzan, who is the NSW Census Director, on this program on Friday. I asked her a very simple question. I asked her three times, and she couldn't answer me. I said: 'If you're online, and you choose not to put your name on it, can you hit send?' and I think the answer is 'No'. Is it possible to leave your name off it or does someone check, what's the story?

LEIGH: Luke, I'm afraid it's one of those questions you've got to put to the government. As an opposition member, I'm not privy to all the details as to how they've chosen to run the Census. It is true we've collected names and addresses for many decades now and we've done that in part to make sure that people have filled in the Census and partly to because you can do something like – for example – matching up to the death registry in order to work out the indigenous/non-indigenous life expectancy gap. That's a number that really matters for our national reconciliation effort, and names and addresses are used in order to do that match. So, I've got no problem with the retention of names and addresses. But the government, if they're going to change the period of retention, needs to make the case for that, and they just haven't.

BONA: I haven't got a problem. I've got absolutely nothing to hide but what I do worry about is all this information on me and my family may get leaked into the wrong hands.

LEIGH: I've got confidence in the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But what I don't have confidence in is the ability of Turnbull government ministers to make their case for policy changes. The thing is when the public service works hard in – for example putting together a trade deal – they're very happy to take credit for the hard work of Australian public servants. But when it comes to actually going out there and articulating for a complicated policy change, Turnbull government ministers are invariably missing in action. They want the credit, but they don't want to do the hard work.

BONA: Yeah... Senator Nick Xenophon, he's gonna withhold his name and his personal information, and he said he'll risk a fine. How do you feel, personally, about that? You'll be submitting your name? You haven't got a problem?

LEIGH: Absolutely I will Luke. But let's be clear, I'm not exactly a normal Census filler-outer. I'm somebody who's used the micro-data from the Census in my past research so the question isn't, 'Has the government done enough to persuade a former economics professor?' It's, 'Have they done enough in order to persuade the vast majority of Australians that they should feel comfortable?' and that work I'm afraid just hasn't been properly done by the ministers. They have left it to the public servants, and it's just not the job of the public servants to articulate for policy changes. The doctrine of ministerial accountability says 'the buck has to stop with the minister'.

BONA: I just think they've done a lousy job of selling it but anyway, tonight's the night. Dr Andrew Leigh, thanks for your thoughts.

LEIGH: Thanks so much.

BONA: And try to watch the replay of that match, alright?

LEIGH: Absolutely.


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