Statistician's address commemorating the ABS' Centenary

By Dennis Trewin, the Australian Statistician
8 December

Welcome Treasurer, Peter Costello, former Australian Statisticians, friends of the ABS, former staff and, of course, current staff of the ABS, especially those watching from their desk tops.

Treasurer, we really appreciate you making time available from your busy schedule. We know it is not easy - especially this time of the year.

We also really appreciate the support you have given to the ABS more generally. Treasurer, the additional funding we received in the last budget was a tremendous boost. It was not just the dollars but the positive signal from Government that it was prepared to invest money in better official statistics and trusted the ABS to do the work. It literally gave us a new lease of life - a real highlight in our Centenary year.

On 8 December 1905, the Census and Statistics Act was passed. Under the Act, the population census and some Commonwealth statistics became Commonwealth functions. Other general statistics were still to be collected by the States. But the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics had the role of compiling national statistics based on data provided by the State Government Statistical Offices. It also had the role of establishing standards to which the State Offices should conform to provide comparable data across Australia.

That was the genesis of what is now known as the ABS. The cooperation with State systems worked OK but not perfectly. Some States were slow to make their contribution to national estimates and standards were not always applied consistently. This led fairly quickly to discussions about an integrated national statistical service. Premier's Conferences passed resolutions to that effect. Tasmania came on board in 1924 but the other States did not come on board until 1956. We now have an integrated statistical service that satisfies the needs of the Australian Government and State/Territory Governments as well as the community. Treasurer, I believe the ABS has been a good model of Federal/State cooperation. We have some differences of opinion from time to time with our State colleagues but basically things work very well.

The next big step was to create the ABS as an independent statutory authority in 1975. This established in legislation what had been regarded as accepted practice of an independent official statistical agency.

I feel very privileged to be the Australian Statistician during our Centenary year. I have received accolades about the work of the ABS which my predecessors and their staff really deserve. I would like to formally acknowledge that the successes we have obtained over 100 years are due to the efforts of many people, not just the current staff, and thank them for it. Some of these former staff are here today.

Our real comparative advantage, as an official statistical agency, is trust. That has to be earned. It can also disappear quickly perhaps with one significant incident not managed properly, and take years to repair. I believe the main reason we have maintained trust is that we have core values that are actually reflected in the behaviours of staff. And always have been.

We have also had the respect (and support) of governments and oppositions. Again that can disappear with one significant incident. So you have to be continually vigilant if you want to retain trust.

We have assembled today to hear what the Treasurer has to say so I will finish my remarks now. Thank you for listening.

Dennis Trewin
Australian Statistician