Senate Inquiry Opening Statement

Media Statement
Parliament House, Canberra, 25 October 2016

David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician

The ABS was requested to provide its submission to this Inquiry by 21 September, when we were still receiving many Census returns.

Since then, I am pleased to report that all the available evidence suggests we will have high quality Census data from the 2016 collection:

  • A preliminary participation rate of over 96% of households contributing data to the 2016 Census, comprising over 4.9 million on line forms and over 3.5 million paper forms, and many personal forms in addition to the household ones.
  • The initial quality checks we have undertaken to date (covering over half of the total Census returns) show low levels of item non-response to the known sensitive questions.
  • The much higher level of on line response achieved in the 2016 Census compared to past years is expected to lead to higher quality Census responses overall, drawing on the 2006 and 2011 experience about the higher quality of on line responses.

The Census Post-Enumeration Survey is still in the field to assess the coverage of the Census count and we will undertake further intensive processing and quality testing of Census data over the coming six months. As an additional quality mechanism, we are establishing an independent panel to provide their own quality assurance of the 2016 Census data, and will publish their report in 2017.

2016 Census data will allow us to produce new population estimates that, in turn, contribute to federal and state funding allocations and are used for setting of electoral boundaries. New information on regional communities and small population groups will properly inform many future policy and planning decisions.

As I mentioned at our Senate Estimates hearing last week, I would like to thank the Australian population for their forbearance and diligence in completing the 2016 Census. The ABS has tested the patience and commitment of many households, especially through the difficulties accessing the call centre and the unavailability of the Census on line form for nearly two days. We made a difficult decision to take the system off line on 9 August to ensure the security of Census data, but we should not have got to that point and the IBM system should have been robust to DDOS events.

The ABS made a number of poor judgments in our preparation for Census 2016 that led to the poor service experienced by many households. I apologised to the community on behalf of the ABS.

We managed other aspects of the Census very well. Many other households did have a good Census experience in 2016, through access to a quick and easy on line form or use of paper forms. This is what we should achieve across the entire population.

In the lead up to the 2016 Census and right through the Census process, we continued to track very high levels of community support for the Census. Australians clearly understand the value of the Census. The available evidence is that Australians completed the Census to the usual extent, despite our system difficulties for a few days and the commentary about privacy.

Our Submission highlights the long history and importance of collecting name and address in Australian Censuses. Over the last Century, the ABS has required people to provide names and addresses to produce essential national statistics, and only for statistical purposes. This is international practice. Canada’s experiment with an opt-in Census in 2011 had less than a 70% response rate and serious data quality issues. Canada’s latest 2016 process reverted to a mandatory response to the long form Census.

Following an Australian tradition to debate Census and privacy that goes back to the 1970s, I have been struck by some of the misunderstandings that were promulgated around this issue, including by Bill McLennan who was Australian Statistician more than 16 years’ ago.

Our submission provides the facts of how the ABS safely and securely uses Census information to produce statistics that are of national importance, and has done so for decades. The ABS regularly receives sensitive information from households, businesses and government that enable us to produce the wide array of essential statistics required by the nation. The ABS has a long-standing compact with the community to keep your private information safe and secure. The ABS has extensive protections safeguarding the security of our data holdings, statistical production and dissemination of statistics. We are also constantly vigilant to identify new risks and upgrade our protections.

The overall mission of the ABS is to produce statistics to inform decision making. The functions of the ABS established in 1975 to collect, compile, analyse and disseminate statistics and maximum possible utilisation for statistical purposes of information available to official bodies are still pertinent to the ABS in the 21st Century. The secrecy and disclosure requirements in the Census and Statistics Act 1905 are properly very restrictive for a national statistical agency.

The ABS’ statistical capabilities continue to develop, as they have over our 110 year history. The cost of managing big data has declined substantially over recent years, we are making increasing use of the information already collected by governments and the commercial sector, and we are looking to reduce the collection burden we directly place on households and businesses. The ABS of today is more complex and advanced from the ABS of just 15-20 years’ ago, as is the broader information environment in which we operate.

The ABS remains one of Australia’s iconic organisations, providing trusted statistics on our economy, our society and our environment. Our data integration capabilities used over the past decade have provided new statistics on Indigenous life expectancy, outcomes for migrants, transitions for auto workers since 2006, post-school outcomes for students undertaking school based apprenticeships and comprehensive statistics for the 2014 review of mental health programs. These are all important public policy issues, where the ABS has safely produced reliable statistics.

The decision to retain name and address information for longer than the previous 18 months will mean that the ABS can deliver more and better quality statistics to inform key public policy decisions and contribute more statistical information about the effectiveness of public programs. Statistics New Zealand already provides such statistics safely and effectively, as observed recently by the JCPAA.

I still believe a digital-first approach was appropriate for the 2016 Census. Given some of the public reaction to the 2016 Census experience, and the need for the ABS to restore high levels of public trust in the Census process, planning for the 2021 Census will necessarily adopt a more rigorous approach and will have all the learnings from the new approach first adopted in the 2016 Census.

I would like to take this early opportunity to advise the Committee of one correction to the ABS Submission, to Table 2.1 on page 13. Consistent with the advice I provided to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee Supplementary Estimates 2016-17 hearing on Wednesday 19 October, the Appropriation funding for the 2016 Census over the five years from 2012-13 to 2016-17 should read: $43.8m, $41.1m, $57.7m, $111.5m and $214.5m respectively.

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