Rot’s in a name

It is an odd situation in which the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics finds himself, feeling the need to write a homely opinion piece for a major newspaper defending the census, the centrepiece of his agency’s work.

It is odd to see him in the Fairfax papers, “excited to sit down with my family on August 9 to record our characteristics”.

It is odd to read a paragraph like this: “I urge everyone in Australia to join me and share in the excitement of this once-in-a-five-year opportunity. Australians have no cause for concern about any aspect of this census, and can have ongoing trust and confidence in the ABS.”

David Kalisch wrote this cloying, strangely defensive piece because of the very real privacy concerns that have stemmed from his decision to hold the names connected to census data for a period of four years and to track one million individuals personally and regularly between censuses.

But Kalisch will not address critics head on. He will not face down the calls for boycott of this important document. He will not talk through the data security or release the legal advice on which he based his decision.

Instead, he writes of the census as if it is a statistical good deed: “Please play your part on August 9 – your information will make a difference.”

There is money to be saved in holding this information, but it comes at a cost. There are valid concerns about the safety of information shared with the bureau of statistics, both in how information is collected and how it is stored. Moreover, there is valid concern about how this information is used and by whom. Kalisch and his bureau have comprehensively failed to address these concerns.

The census itself is a brilliant document, an honest picture of who Australia is. From it are planned the delivery of services, the building of hospitals or schools, the changing of suburbs and cities. Across its pages the history of this country is tracked.

But the way in which Kalisch seeks to change the private compact Australia had about the sharing of that data threatens its very quality. It discourages involvement. It changes at an essential level the relationship the census has to its people.

There are many critics of these changes, none louder than the journalist Bernard Keane. As he wrote this week: “It’s important to understand that this means the ABS has fundamentally changed the nature of the census. It is retaining your name and address not merely for ‘organisational efficiencies’ at the cash-starved bureaucracy, but to undertake something very different to a traditional census. It has gone from being a periodic snapshot of Australia, intended to inform policy development, to being an iterative, permanent, lifelong surveillance project in which every Australian will be tracked down to the most personal details of their lives, compulsorily. This is no longer a census in the sense most citizens understand it, but ongoing surveillance.”

The bureau of statistics is empowered by law to collect “statistical information” and fines can be issued for refusal to comply with this power. It is not clear as to whether a person’s name might be considered “statistical information” under the act. It shouldn’t be, and people should not have to provide this detail. The census depends on the honesty of the people it studies. In doing so, it should provide them with privacy in return.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Rot’s in a name".

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