CANBERRA OBSERVED: by NWNews Weekly
2001 Census: strange role of Bureau of Statistics
, August 25, 2001
Those campaigning to have unpaid work at home recognised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics would be wise to take special note of the behind-the-scenes battle which had to be fought to have just one minor change made to the 2001 Census.
While recounting the passage of an obscure piece of legislation may seem odd, the story is in fact a potent symbol of the power that the Canberra bureaucracy holds over the Parliament of the nation. It shows that, more often than not, when it comes to the legislative program it is the tail which wags the dog in the national capital.
This is something the Howard Government has woken up to over the past six months as it has belatedly realised the Treasury and the Australian Taxation Office were pushing their own agenda without regard to the electoral consequences for the Government.
We will know in a few short months whether that realisation came too late.
One of the big selling points of the 2001 Census was the much-publicised "Time Capsule" where those filling out their Census forms could opt for the first time to have their Census forms kept in the National Archives for 99 years. All previous Census forms had been automatically pulped after the information on them was collated. However, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been saying what a wonderful thing its new Time Capsule is, it was, until very recently, the concept’s most vocal critic.
The ABS had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the idea of keeping the Census forms intact, and it used every weapon in the armoury of the bureaucracy to oppose its introduction. The 2001 Census forms with peoples’ names on them will be copied onto microfiche and stored in a special vault in the National Archives in Canberra. Legislation says that even future courts will not be able to order their release before August 7, 2100.
According to ABS publicity for this year’s Census: "The Census Time Capsule is the Australian Bureau of Statistics major contribution to the commemoration of 100 years of Federation in 2001."
The Bureau also boasts that its Time Capsule will be of enormous benefit to historians, academics, geneologists and epidemiologists of the 22nd Century.
Given the history of the lead-up to this year’s Census, these statements are almost Orwellian in their audacity, and it is extraordinary that the Bureau has managed to get away with it with every major newspaper swallowing its line.
Four years ago the ABS tried to lasso every government department it could think of to stop the Census forms being kept because it claimed no one would fill out the 2001 Census. The ABS wrote submissions opposing the project and even went to the length of commissioning a $40,000 survey to show how people would refuse to co-operate if they knew their Census forms were going to be kept for posterity.
The hero of the Census form fight is now an ex-politician, former Liberal Member for Cook in New South Wales, Mr Stephen Mutch, who lost pre-selection for his seat to former deputy NSW liberal leader Bruce Baird before the 1998 election.
Mr Mutch arrived in Parliament in 1996 with a reputation as a fighter having taken on some bizarre religious cults as a state MP, so he was at least a match for the bureaucracy, even one with the chutzpah of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Together with a not inconsiderable army of geneologists and family tree diggers around the country, Mr Mutch started lobbying to stop the Census forms from being destroyed.
Through much persistence and with some bi-partisan support he eventually convinced the Prime Minister and his Treasurer to have a committee look into the matter - partly motivated no doubt in getting Mr Mutch off their backs.
The Parliamentary Committee, headed by Victorian MP Mr Kevin Andrews (another MP who is not easily brow-beaten), went into its deliberations with an open mind, but as time went on got more and more offside with the ABS.
The Bureau had mounted a blatant campaign to get other government departments to support its position - including the Treasury and the Tax Office - that keeping the Census forms would be a catastrophe for the planning of future government.
Mr Andrews’ committee was appalled to discover that the much-vaunted $40,000 private survey the bureau had commissioned had in fact asked leading questions to get the result it wanted.
This from an organisation which prides itself on its objectivity.
The House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Committee also accused other departments, both state and federal, of being in cahoots with the ABS to oppose the idea. According to the Committee’s final report, the ABS had even resorted to using one of its own "plants" on secondment with the Department of Employment, Education and Training to make a submission blasting the Time Capsule concept.
Even after the Andrews Committee unanimously recommended keeping the Census forms for 99 years, the ABS fought a secret rearguard action going behind closed doors to convince Prime Minister Howard and Treasurer Costello to reject the Committee’s findings.
However, Mr Costello to his credit resisted the pleadings of his bureaucrats for once, and introduced legislation to keep the 2001 Census forms for the first time.
The ABS comes under the broad umbrella of the Treasury, and given the later fiascos of the Business Activity Statement, to name one, Mr Costello might have been better to have continued with the precedent he set. The ABS even had one last victory over the representatives of the nation when it was able to secure an "opt in" question to the Time Capsule, rather than an "opt out" question as recommended by the Committee. In other words people had to specifically ask that their forms be archived. It will be interesting to see just how "frightened" the Australian populace were about the Time Capsule question when the results of the question are recorded.
The most likely result is that the vast majority of people will have been happy to help out with building an historic record. What they really have to fear, if they only knew, is the power of the bureaucracy itself to run rings around our elected representatives.