The Need for Ministerial Responsibility - Radio Interview





SUBJECT/S: 2016 Census; Superannuation.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: For more on the Census, I am joined live in our Parliament House studio by shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh.

Andrew Leigh, good morning.

ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So a number of politicians are not putting their names on the Census forms – are you?

ANDREW LEIGH: Yes I will be. I believe that the Census is an important national information gathering exercise.

But Michael I have been disappointed with the way in which the Government has explained their changes to the Census. They've more than doubled the period for which names and addresses will be retained. They've known for months they were making this change and yet successive ministers – Kelly O'Dwyer, Alex Hawke, Michael McCormack – have failed to make the case for that policy change to the Australian people.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Why is it necessary? Can you make the case for it?

ANDREW LEIGH: Well I don't have the information in front of me that they do. The thing about being a minister, Michael, is that you have ministerial accountability.

Michael McCormack waited a full week after getting this job before he sought a briefing from the Bureau of Statistics. I've been calling for him for weeks after this story began to break to come and explain to the Australian people. But he seems to think the job of a minister is to take credit when there is good news from the hard work of public servants but then kick it off to the public servants when there is difficult policy to be explained. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So the security concerns could be legitimate, do you think?

ANDREW LEIGH: There are many Australians who are concerned about this and the reason they are concerned is the Government hasn't done their job. 

I can't find any record of Alex Hawke having uttered a peep about this. Michael McCormack has been very slow out of the blocks and then yesterday dismissed community concerns as ‘much ado about nothing’. Frankly the community concerns are there because Michael McCormack didn't do his job in explaining the Government's policy change. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But is this protest by some politicians, Nick Xenophon and Greens in particular, is that responsible?

ANDREW LEIGH: I won't be following them. I would encourage Australians not to spoil the Census because when you do so you deny your community and your neighbours the resources to which they are entitled. 

But I do understand where this frustration is coming from. It's coming from many Australians being concerned that the Government hasn't explained their policy change properly.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now you've said obviously the ministers should take some responsibility for this but how much responsibility should the ABS itself take because, you know, they're the ones out there selling this publically? People are legitimately concerned about their privacy information in this new digital age yet the ABS doesn't seem to have explained this change particularly effectively either, has it?

ANDREW LEIGH: But Michael your question goes to the key distinction in how politics works in our country. 

The ABS's job is to run the biggest Census in Australian history; their job is not to do the policy work of arguing for Government changes. They are too busy running the Census to also be doing Michael McCormack's job. He should have been out there weeks ago; his predecessors should have been out there months ago. 

When we look back to the last Census where Bill Shorten was the responsible minister, it ran far more smoothly, in large part because Bill Shorten took ministerial responsibility rather than kicking it off to the bureaucrats. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: How important is the Census?

ANDREW LEIGH: It's critical. If you look at things like how we allocate funding across schools, how we decide how to invest in targeted homelessness strategies, where we look at employment programs, all of those programs are shaped to a large extent by the Census.

If you look at for example the Indigenous/non-Indigenous life expectancy gap, that's a measure which we would really only get at when we use a tool like the Census.  As an economics professor I used the data from the Census in a number of research papers. So I do understand the importance of that information being accurate and that's why I'm so frustrated at this Government's failure to sell their policy changes. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Clearly there is an element of confusion, almost chaos in some areas about this Census. Is there a chance, I mean is it likely that this Census will be compromised as a result of this? 

ANDREW LEIGH: That certainly seems to be a risk. When you've got politicians out there arguing for people to spoil the Census as a result of the Government's failure to sell its Census changes, then yes, that imperils the quality of Census data. 

Labor's view is that everybody should accurately fill in the Census but we also believe that Turnbull Government ministers should do their job. That's not too much to ask. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And so that could have pretty wide ranging consequences, couldn't it?

ANDREW LEIGH: Indeed it could. The quality of the Census data flows through to many things that government does. It also affects the way in which non-government organisations decide how to deploy their resources. 

We've opened up Bureau of Statistics data quite considerably over the course of the last decade. The benefits of that flow to the business and not-for-profit sector. But they rely on high quality information in the Census which we don't get if people are worried or frustrated as a result of changes that aren't being explained to them.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Nick Xenophon has foreshadowed legislation that would make it voluntary for people to provide their name. Firstly, why is it important for people to provide their names and would Labor support a voluntary legislation?

ANDREW LEIGH: Well one of the things that it's possible to do when you have names and addresses is to do a match through to the death registry. 

So for example in the previous Census matching to the death registry allowed us to get a much more precise estimate of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous life expectancy gap. It actually suggested that gap was something around in the order of two-thirds to half what we previously thought. We couldn't have done that without a name and address match. It's a critical public policy issue for Australia.

So I do understand why names and addresses need to be retained. But if you're going to more than double the period for which they are retained you need to explain that to the Australian people. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So would you support this idea to legislate so people don't have to put their names or is that just absolutely something that's absolutely necessary?

ANDREW LEIGH: Look, the reason we have names and addresses is in part so that we can - the Bureau of Statistics can match to data such as the death registry to learn about important policy questions, but also because filling out the Census is the responsibility of all Australians and it's vital that we check that that's done. So I can understand the rationale for the way in which the principle has operated for decades gone past. 

But I'm not here arguing for the policy change this Government has been made and it's that policy change Michael that's caused the frustration. You didn't have this outrage last time around, when Labor was out there explaining the importance of the Census. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, can I just ask you quickly about another policy area which is superannuation. Clearly that's going to come up as one of the legislative - one of the motions that are going to come up fairly quickly in this new parliament. 

Now you support the super changes broadly apart from what you say are the retrospective elements of the $500,000 cap. But are you prepared to negotiate on some measures. For instance yesterday this idea was floated that there could be an exemption to the $500,000 cap for some people who get a windfall from a lifetime event such as compensation payments for instance. Are you prepared to negotiate around the edges here?

ANDREW LEIGH: Well Michael our original proposal which I still think would be the right way to go is to have an expert panel look at the Government's superannuation proposals and assess the community concern over whether they're actually retrospective.

As to the changes mooted yesterday we are really lacking a lot of detail. In particular I'm not even sure what the revenue cost is of the Government's decision to make changes. Superannuation policy shouldn't be made by the far right of the Liberal Party; it should be made based on the long term interests of all Australian people. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay but you'll look at ideas if they come forward?

ANDREW LEIGH: We'll look at all constructive proposals. But, Michael, the reason Labor put our ideas out more than a year before the election was because it's important for people to have certainty in super. That's the last thing they've got right now. This policy was meant to be ‘iron clad’, in the words of the Prime Minister, before the election. Now he is chopping and changing on the fly. 

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Andrew Leigh, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us. 

ANDREW LEIGH: Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Labor's assistant shadow treasurer Andrew Leigh.

And the Minister responsible for the Census Michael McCormack declined AM's invitation to be interviewed this morning.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.