The staggering failure of the Australian Bureau of Statistics last night to manage the online component of a census it had had five years in which to prepare caps off a remarkable series of bungles by the once-respected agency in relation to what former ABS head Bill McLennan has termed “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians”. The ABS’ dismissive, almost scornful rejection of widespread and legitimate concerns about privacy has now been capped by an implementation debacle that has badly damaged the census and destroyed the credibility of what should be one of Australia’s most respected independent public service bodies.
Normally, the CEO responsible for such a remarkable bungle would be under pressure to resign. However, ABS head David Kalisch should not resign or be dismissed at this time. It took the government nearly a year to appoint Kalisch, leaving the ABS directionless at a crucial time when it was struggling with funding cuts imposed by both sides. This is not to absolve Kalisch of responsibility — his own response to privacy and security concerns about the census has bordered on the arrogant. But his removal will leave a key national institution again adrift — and who knows how long this seemingly increasingly incompetent government will take to replace him.
Clearly, however, a parliamentary inquiry is necessary to investigate how the census failed. An in-house inquiry by the government is not sufficient — it must be a Senate references inquiry headed by a non-government senator that can explore how this disaster unfolded — and how such a monumental stuff-up can be prevented in 2021.