COMMITTEES;Economics References Committee;Report – 24 Nov 2016

On behalf of Senator Ketter, the Chair of the Economics References Committee, I present the report of the Economics References Committee on the 2016 census together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

 Senator BILYK: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I would like to congratulate my colleague Senator Ketter and the other members of the Economics References Committee on their excellent report on the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. The census is a very important process for Australia. It creates a snapshot of our nation and its people, helps us to observe population and demographic trends and is a very important public policy tool. Given its importance, it is also really important that we get the census right. The Australian public must have trust in the census process to be encouraged to participate and to be assured that the data is accurate and reliable. While this report is incisive, even a casual observer can see that this year’s census was the worst in Australia’s history.

Millions of people across Australia logged onto their computers on census night, 9 August, anticipating the great family tradition of filling in their census together, only to be faced with messages on their screens such as ‘This page can’t be displayed,’ or ‘This site can’t be reached.’ Social media then lit up with the outrage of users who could not access the online census or eCensus site. It was later revealed that the ABS had made a decision to shut down the site due to a distributed denial of service attack. I think there were four attacks, actually.

Mr Turnbull’s special adviser on cybersecurity, Mr Alastair MacGibbon, told a Senate estimates that the denial-of-service attack should not have brought down the census website. He said that the attacks were small and predictable, sending around three gigabytes per second of data when it is not uncommon to see attacks of 100 gigabytes per second or even 1,000 gigabytes per second. The Senate economics committee agreed. In the report they state:

It goes without saying that the eCensus website should have had the capacity to withstand what was a relatively minor attack.

The report goes on to say:

…there appears to have been significant and obvious oversights in the preparation of the eCensus.

The committee’s report addresses issues such as the preparedness of the ABS’s subcontractor IBM for denial-of-service attacks and the decision not to hold an open tender process for the contract. Evidence was also given by IBM that the ABS was considering not proceeding with the e-census, and, indeed, decreasing the frequency of the census to once every 10 years. Their final decision to proceed with the 2016 e-census was, according to IBM’s evidence, reported to them as late as May 2015. To quote the committee’s report:

The confirmation that the census would proceed, the delayed development of an eCensus solution, the use of a limited tender and the erosion of internal capacity to adequately oversee the development of the eCensus are all serious concerns that may have contributed to the events of 9 August 2016.

But the ultimate blame, obviously, rests with the government. You cannot discount the impact of budget cuts to the ABS, the long-running vacancy in the position of the Australian Statistician, the government’s hands-off approach to the project and the revolving door of ministers responsible for the census—matters that are also addressed by this report, with appropriate recommendations.

The Australian Statistician acknowledged during the last round of budget estimates that the ABS has to date incurred additional costs of around $20 million and anticipates spending another $10 million. The cost to taxpayers of this bungle is a staggering $30 million. There is a possibility that some of that money may be able to be recovered, and I certainly hope that is the case. Australian taxpayers are rightly angry about their money being wasted in this way, but the millions of Australians who attempted to complete their census online on 9 August are also angry about the time wasted in their repeated futile attempts to access the site. They are also angry because the government continued to encourage Australians to complete the census online, even after the site had crashed, wasting many more millions of hours. One indication of what a monumental disaster this census has been is the undercount rate, or the percentage of households missing from the census at the end of the reporting period. Since 1971 the average undercount rate was 1.9 per cent, with the highest reported rate of 2.7 per cent occurring in 1976 and 2006, but the undercount rate for this year’s census was a massive five per cent. How is this going to impact the integrity of the data generated by this year’s census—data which is so important for public policy decisions? How many extra hours are census field officers going to have wasted listing the homes of people who could not complete the census online on census night?

At same time as this government has bungled Australia’s census, Canada has recently held a census conducted primarily online, with the response rate of 98.4 per cent—their highest ever. Is it any surprise that Australia’s census disaster occurred, given the way the Abbott-Turnbull government has treated the ABS? The government left the position of Australia’s Statistician unfilled for nearly a year, and they appointed four ministers in the space of three years, all of whom ignored the census. On top of this, their savage cuts to the ABS have led to the recent announcement that the agency will need to cut 150 jobs. These cuts and job losses will have a huge impact on the scope and quality of the data that they are able to collect. The census appears to have become the largest victim to this government’s ideological obsession with reducing the size of the Public Service. It is a cruel twist that the very public servants who worked so hard to save this government’s census will be paying with their jobs.

Those opposite would do well to pay attention to the recommendations in this report to avoid a repeat of the debacle that was Australia’s worst census ever. Among the recommendations in the report are:

…that the Australian Government commit the necessary funding for the 2021 census in the 2017–18 Budget.

…that the ABS conduct open tendering processes for future census solutions requiring the participation of the private sector.

… … …

… that the Department of Finance review its ICT Investment Approval Process to ensure that projects such as the 2016 Census are covered by the cabinet two-pass process.

…that the Australian Government provide portfolio stability for the ABS.

… responsible ministers seek six-monthly briefings on the progress of census preparations. These briefings should cover issues including, but not limited to, cyber security, system redundancy, procurement processes and the capacity of the ABS to manage risks associated with the census.

Given the government’s attitude to the ABS and the census, this was a disaster waiting to happen. While Mr Turnbull seems to want to blame everyone but himself for this debacle, can we be in any doubt who would be taking the credit had the census been an outstanding success? If everything had run smoothly, I am sure Mr Turnbull would be crowing about its success in response to a series of suitably worded Dorothy Dixers in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. As the saying goes, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

But in the Westminster system the buck always stops with the minister. To quote from the report:

While many parties have not lived up to their responsibilities in delivering the 2016 census, the primary responsibility lies with the government.

The Prime Minister and his Minister for Small Business must take responsibility for the government’s census stuff-up. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.