The Australian Bureau of Statistics has long been an adornment to policy making and research more generally in Australia: rigorous, independent, trusted, user-friendly. You don’t have to spend too long using the websites of overseas stats agencies to realise we’ve got an enormously valuable and helpful agency in charge of cataloguing our national data. Yes, government budget cuts have created problems in areas like the workforce data, but those of us who prefer our policy evidence-based owe a huge debt of gratitude to the good folk at Belconnen.

But all public service bodies, especially those based in Canberra, are prone to losing touch with the public they notionally serve. Not in some “lazy pencil pusher” stereotyped way, but because it’s almost codified in the way you talk about your work — because it’s a world where “stakeholders” must be “engaged” (there’s even a “Consultation”: line on ministerial briefs), “industry liaison” undertaken, issues identified and “addressed” (especially “threshold issues”), “ownership” taken or imparted, KPIs met, all while doing what you were going to do anyway. Because bureaucratese is designed to create distance, to facilitate non-commitment, to generate the appearance but not the reality of meaningful interaction. Because bureaucrats really are immensely process-obsessed, for reasons that seem eminently sensible when you’re in the thick of it but which seem peculiar when you sit back and reflect on what actual outcomes are being sought. And because of Canberra — a town full of smart, highly educated people that in so many ways is atypical of the rest of Australia, for both better and worse. I know, because I’ve been there, done that, and got the Public Service award, for 15 long years.

That insularity and distance surely played a role in the long-standing ambition of ABS bureaucrats to transform Australia’s five-yearly census from a periodic snapshot of Australia into what is, quite literally, permanent surveillance, in which every Australian will have a file full of their most personal information provided by each census, supplemented by other personal information held by the government such as medical and pharmaceutical records. Our names won’t be on the file — there’ll be an encrypted identifier for it — but as Crikey has repeatedly explained, linking it to an individual will be trivially easy.

Arriving at the belief that this is a good idea is a classic example of insular bureaucratic thinking and the way processes are shaped to accommodate that thinking. In 2005, some luckless ABS official thought it would be smart to commission an independent report on the idea of keeping names to establish unique identifiers for census information. Privacy expert Nigel Waters was duly commissioned and duly panned the idea. This briefly deterred the Bureau, but in 2011 it decided to start the process of establishing ongoing tracking of citizens via a 5% sample from the census that year — without the permission or even knowledge of the “participants”, or any independent assessment of the selection process. It then decided to extend that to the entire population — but this time the ABS made sure there was no risk of it being derailed. Rather than conduct another independent assessment, it conducted an internal review that, quelle surprise, determined the idea was a good one. On the basis of its own assessment, it waited until a week before Christmas last year to sneak out an announcement that it would be retaining names and addresses.

And that announcement failed to actually explain the purposes of keeping names and addresses, beyond the anodyne assertion that it was “to provide a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.” There was no discussion of how this the names and addresses — which everyone is hung up on –are just a tool to enable the establishment of a permanent file on each Australian, composed of our most personal details.

This pro forma approach to process, though, has ended up undermining the census itself: in refusing to seriously engage with critics of its plans for lifelong surveillance, the ABS has reinforced “stakeholder” concerns about privacy, and its dismissive attitude and resort to threats of fines for non-compliance — coupled with a seemingly manic Twitter account that began sending out spam last night — illustrate how out of touch ABS bureaucrats are. There are some interesting parallels, too, with the data retention debate: critics of the census are now being accused of putting children’s health or indigenous programs in jeopardy, just as data retention critics were accused of undermining the fight against terrorism and restricting the ability of security agencies to fight crime. It’s policy-by-guilt-trip.

In illustrating the distance between bureaucrats and the community, the ABS confirms exactly the fears about privacy and security that it could have assuaged if it had genuinely engaged with the community on this major change. The result has been to drive many who otherwise readily support the census to refusing to provide their names, or boycotting altogether. ABS staff have gone too far toward seeing Australians simply as a vast data source to be manipulated — by legal compulsion, if necessary — for the purposes of bureaucrats, not as legitimate partners and customers with their own views about the line to be drawn between claims of the public good and personal rights.

I first urged a boycott of the census back in March. Since then, as many more informed and more expert people than myself have emerged to say they, too, are deeply worried about what the ABS is doing, my view has only hardened. The former head of the ABS, Bill McLennan; former NSW deputy privacy commissioner Anna Johnston; former Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton, respected researchers like Leslie Cannold, politicians with a track record of standing up for privacy and against bureaucratic overreach, like Nick Xenophon and Scott Ludlam, public health researchers, epidemiologists, academics who rely on the census but who are mortified at what’s being done. And everyday Australians who don’t understand why the ABS feels the need to place them under permanent surveillance. So I won’t be party to the destruction of my own privacy. I’ll do nothing instead.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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