The seeds for the failure of the 2016 Census - Press Conference Transcript
















SUBJECT/S: Senate Census Inquiry; Ministerial responsibility; Bob Day’s vote

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER:  My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. With me is Labor Senator Chris Ketter. 

We are here today to talk about the inquiry into the botching of the Australian Census. Let’s be clear, the 2016 Australian Census was mucked up worse than any other census in Australian history. This inquiry is one the Liberals fought against tooth and nail until it finally became clear that an inquiry was needed. 

But the seeds for the failure of the 2016 Census were sown years ago. There was a three year period during which the Turnbull and Abbott Governments had a total of four Ministers responsible for the Census. They left the position of Chief Statistician unfilled for nearly a year. Their Ministers failed to properly scrutinise what was going on in the department and did virtually no engagement of the broader public about the concerns the broader public had. And then they were surprised when on Census night the website went down, costing millions of dollars and wasting millions of hours of Australians’ time who were left frustrated on Census night by the botching of the Census by the Turnbull Government. 

Now a strong government would have stepped up and taken responsibility. Because that’s the tradition of ministerial responsibility in this country. When public servants do good work behind the scenes, Ministers are entitled to stand up and claim credit – whether it is for a trade deal or for a Budget. But when things go wrong Ministers also have to accept responsibility under the Westminster system. Yet what we have seen from the Turnbull Government is less personal responsibility than Donald Trump.

Not just on this particular issue of the census, we are seeing it in other areas too: with the Government’s attacks on Paul Grimes, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. With their attacks on Gillian Triggs, the Human Rights Commissioner. With their abhorrent attacks on Justin Gleeson, the Solicitor General. Now their attempts to blame corporations and public servants for their botching of the 2016 Census. 

Let's be clear: you can't outsource that responsibility. Running a census is one of the core responsibilities of the Federal Government. It's in the Constitution. Section 51(xi) gives the Federal Government responsibility for running a Census. In 2011, Bill Shorten was the Minister responsible for the Census which had the lowest undercount rate of any Australian Census in a generation. That Census went smoothly. Labor showed how a Census could be run. Now with the botching of this Census, Labor wants answers as to why the Australian people had their time wasted and their money wasted as a result of what the Turnbull Government did with the Census.

I'll hand over now to Chris Ketter who's been spear-heading the questioning from Labor on this important inquiry today. 

SENATOR CHRIS KETTER, CHAIR, SENATE ECONOMICS REFERENCES COMMITTEE: Thanks Andrew. Yes, the Senate Economics References Committee has been looking very closely at the botched Census 2016. We know from Senate Estimates last week that there was a cost blow-out of something like $30 million dollars arising from the botching of the Census. We know that many of the stakeholders involved in this inquiry are blaming each other and there's buck-passing.

What we really need to know is what was the relevant Minister doing at the time? Which of the four Ministers that have had responsibility for the Census since 2013 has caused the problem? We know that over that period of time a range of key decisions have been made which have led to the outcome we are examining today. 

We know that this is a Government that is more apt to blame hard-working public servants than to take responsibility for their actions. We're going to continue with the ABS after lunch. We've already heard from IBM. IBM today once again apologised for their role in the Census and the inconvenience it caused to the Australian people. It would be great for the relevant Minister to come forward and stand-up and be accountable. Because ultimately it is the Minister that is responsible. We also know from IBM's testimony this morning that nobody within IBM has been dismissed as a result of the botched Census. That is quite a surprising finding. We also know that IBM is now involved in negotiations with the Treasury Secretary in terms of cost considerations and there are some confidential discussions going on but no Ministers are involved in those negotiations. 

So once again; where are the Ministers that should be looking into this issue? Where are the Ministers taking responsibility and stepping up to the plate to address the concerns that we have? They're nowhere to be seen.

Happy to take questions. 

JOURNALIST: Senator, as you mentioned IBM has taken full responsibility but they did say that no one would be sacked or disciplined. Is that adequate? Is that appropriate?

KETTER: Well, what's happened is that IBM – whilst saying that they take responsibility, have also pointed the finger of blame at some of their sub-contractors in this exercise, but has the head contractor they've taken responsibility. So, I don't think it’s the end of the matter. We will be looking further into this issue. We will be examining very closely what IBM have said but it's not good enough for people to blame each other. Ultimately, it really comes back to the Minister stepping in and taking responsibility and telling us where the fault lies.

JOURNALISTShould IBM employees have been sacked or disciplined though? 

KETTER: We can see that many of the issues that the Census failed over were issues that probably – in hindsight – could have been addressed. So there are some question marks over the handling of the Census by IBM, as far as I'm concerned, and these are issues that we'll be taking up with the ABS. We'll test a number of things that IBM have said, but so far I'd have to say that IBM have let down the Australian people. They've apologised for that which is good, but I'll return to the point that it's not simply IBM that is responsible – it's in fact the relevant Minister that should be stepping up to the plate.

JOURNALISTWhat about on the wider questions? You had testimony from Bill McLennan talking about the jobs data. Are there wider questions for the ABS that the government needs to be looking at?

LEIGHThe government cut funding to the Bureau of Statistics in 2014 which has impaired its ability to do its job. It's something that you see right across this government – cutbacks to agencies which provide the raw data that's important for evidence-based policy making. You keep on hacking away at agencies like the Bureau of Statistics and you shouldn't be surprised when they're struggling to do their job. One of the big questions coming out of this is now that the ABS has had to spend that additional $30 million dollars in fixing the problems of the 2016 Census, what won't they be able to do?

We have heard from the Statistician that they’re now looking at potentially axing a range of data sets, they might include retail trade figures, regional economic data, it might include the tourism survey, the internet survey, and the patient experience survey. A whole range of critical ABS surveys are on the chopping block as a result of the cuts to the ABS and the botching of the 2016 Census.

JOURNALISTJust a question for yourself or the Senator, it might be legal for Bob Day to come and sit back in the Senate next month, but is it ethical? 

LEIGH: Bob Day is, as it appears, going into bankruptcy and I think many Australians would have deep concerns about somebody in that position voting on the ABCC Bills. If there is a deal that has been done between Bob Day and the Government so that he casts a vote in favour of the government while he’s on his way into bankruptcy, that would be a deal that would concern many Australians. 

JOURNALISTJust one last question on the Census – what kind of commercial settlement do you think would be appropriate? Can you put a figure on that? 

KETTER: That’s something for the government to negotiate, but we’ve already heard that the botching of the Census has seen a cost blowout of around $30 million on what was supposed to be a $100 million cost saving arising from the “digital first” strategy on the Census. $30 million dollars is what we’re out of pocket by and it’s up to IBM and the government to come up with the best deal. 

LEIGH: Just on top of that don’t forget the time that’s wasted. Governments can measure their fiscal cost, but if you priced out the millions of hours of Australians’ time that was lost on Census night, if you price that out at the average wage – $25 odd dollars multiplied by many millions of hours –the social cost of Australians’ time wasted is probably in excess of $30 million dollars. Australians will never get that time back and it’s a direct result of the botching of this Census by this government. 





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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.