Malcolm Turnbull

Revelations that the Australian Bureau of Statistics “did not give appropriate advice” to its minister about the problems on Census night are “extraordinary”, thinks former senior public servant and businessman Graeme Samuel.

There are reports today that by the time Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted “We filled in the @ABSCensus tonight online — v easy to do” at 7.17pm, the ABS had been battling attacks on the census website for over nine hours.

Just 28 minutes later the ABS shut down the site, pushing the exercise into further disarray in an effort to avoid a potentially disastrous data leak. Yet it wasn’t until 8.10pm Minister Michael McCormack was finally informed. About 20 minutes later, McCormack told Turnbull what had been occurring.

“It seems to me extraordinary” that the ABS did not notify its minister when it knew something was going wrong earlier in the day, the incredulous former ACCC chair tells The Mandarin.

“Can you imagine the Prime Minister tweeting if he knew what was going on?”

“The role of the public service is to provide advice on policy and issues as they’re arising,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense” that the ABS would seemingly withhold that information from the government.

“To provide advice late seems to be not meeting the expectations on the public service in its responsibilities to government.”

Mandarin Turnbull tweet

The result is that the minister and Prime Minister have been embarrassed by not being kept in the loop.

“I’ve always had a view that in the public service you owe it to the public and your minister to keep them fully informed about issues that might arise. Especially given the sensitivities around the Census, the minister and Prime Minister should have been notified there was a problem,” he argues.

“You need to keep people fully briefed. The last thing ministers want is surprises — they always say ‘I want bad news in advance’.”

The incident has also exposed the ABS’ lack of readiness for a cyber attack.

An angry Prime Minister conceded this morning that “measures that ought to have been in place to prevent these denial of service attacks interfering with access to the website were not put in place — that is a fact, that was a failure.”

Noting there’s been no verification that it was indeed a denial of service attack, Samuel does not understand how there could have been such a lack of preparation for the possibility. He reckons “it should have been obvious and the subject of proper preparation”.

All this seems to be part of a broader problem. The census night stuff-up came on top of a “failure in communication” in the lead up to the day, Samuel adds.

The statistical agency should have put more effort into explaining that it was not necessary to fill out the form on census night itself, which may have alleviated some of the problems.

But there was also a failure to explain the data retention changes to the public, which led to concerns very late in the process.

“There was a failure in the sense that the public weren’t prepared for the changes being made. There was a sense it crept up on them without being told. If you have nothing to hide you should be out there being as transparent as possible,” he explained.

“If you don’t do that you leave it open to misinformation and scare campaigns. There were changes made in this census. They were made well in advance, so there could have been a debate about them. What arose in the latter stages, the privacy concerns, could have been minimised and neutralised if they had done better at communicating with the public.”

*This article was originally published at Crikey sister site The Mandarin

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey