MUNGO MacCALLUM. Campaign against the Australian Census.


My first encounter with the Australian census was in 1971, and even then there were worries about its privacy.

Gordon Barton, the proprietor of Nation Review, the paper for which I then worked, ran a fierce campaign against what he thought was a dangerous tendency for the government to collect people’s personal details.

I spoke at length to the responsible minister, a somewhat bemused Billy Snedden; neither of us could see what the fuss was about, and 45 years later I still can’t. The census is a necessary and desirable tool of government, a snapshot of the nation to allow administrators to analyse and, it is to be hoped, improve the condition of the citizenry.

It is not, despite its more paranoid critics, a sinister attempt to impose a ruthless totalitarian regime in which the privacy of individual is consigned to the files of a modern day Gestapo. The jackboots did not thunder up the staircases in 1971 and they are not about to now.

There are always those who will be concerned and suspicious about the census, but there are always those who will be concerned and suspicious about fluoridation, vaccination and marauding invaders from Mars. They may be sincere, but they should not be taken seriously.

And the most recent panic – that the Bureau of Statistics will retain the names and addresses for four years rather than one and a half – is not really a cause for alarm. If there have been no leaks since the census was inaugurated since 1911, it is not likely that they will suddenly begin now.

But the fact that the doubters exist at all is largely the fault of the government. For the last three years snooping and secrecy in the name of security have been remorselessly ramped up, and the more the spooks get, the more they want.

The attack on civil liberties has been constant and it shows no sign of decreasing. And because it has never been explained or excused by the powers that be, the census has become collateral damage – it is now seen as just another assault on the long-suffering public.

It need not be this way and it should not; belatedly the Bureau and the politicians have finally realized that they need to reassure the nervous. But it is probably too late, and the more genuine problems about the census, relating mainly from the switch from paper to electronics, have not helped.

If Malcolm Turnbull had not already shredded his credibility as a frank and trustworthy leader he could perhaps have repaired the damage. As it is, he has become just another of those who have caused it. And once again the foundations of our system of government – even of democracy itself – has been undermined, not through malice but through incompetence.

The census should be a celebration; in 1967 we supported a referendum in which, for the first time, Indigenous Australians were counted (quite literally) as citizens. Now we are more inclined to boycott the whole system. And this is as pity and a shame.

Mungo MacCallum was a senior journalist for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. 


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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3 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Campaign against the Australian Census.

  1. Mael Colium says:

    Mungo says we have nothing to fear and compares the 1970’s government to the government of 2016. Forty years on we have ample evidence that governments of today are far more authoritarian and use social data in a manner which could only be described as ideologically inclined. Let us never forget the Nazi use of Germany’s census to eke out information on the Jews, Gypsies, religious groups and disabled to apply their particular form on ethnic cleansing to their population. To say it can never happen here is naïve as has been proven throughout history. We still have never had a coherent explanation as to why religion is a question, nor disability and indeed why names need to be provided. The ABS and the Government and the Opposition have all be circumspect about the need for this data and at least the cross bench parties are showing some spine in the issue. I fail to be mollified by the benevolent government argument.

  2. Kieran Tapsell says:

    I think it strange that people are worried about the census when businesses now know what shop I happen to be browsing in, what brand of underpants I have just bought, where I live and who else lives there, my supposedly silent telephone number, and they even have a photo of the front of my house, it’s roof and the backyard, and everything I buy through the Internet. They even rather stupidly think that having bought something I really want another one or something like it, because they deluge me with more advertising for the same or simular products. Big Brother is here, but it was not brought by Government, but by Big Business. The census is chicken feed when it comes to privacy.

  3. Dr John CARMODY says:

    I think that Mr McCallum misses a few important points.
    Whether he values his privacy as much as other citizens might (or might not) is quite beside the point. The fact is that, since the previous census, there has been a large number of “leaks” — “Wikileaks”, Snowdon for example — which reveal that government-held data are not necessarily secure. It is now so much easier to “steal” information than ever before (think of the vast volume and mass of previous records and it is clear what an impossible task that would have been in previous decades).
    The fact that the PM and the relevant (tyro) minister sound, when they talk, as if they’re never read the Census Act (or have forgotten what they’ve read), isn’t encouraging. The fact that they also sound as if they’re simply recycling what they’re been told by the people at ABS — without ever seeming to have asked any penetrating questions — only makes it worse. So does the fact that what they say sounds calculated to give them all “wriggle room”. On the one hand, they say that the ABS has never been “hacked”. But what does that mean>? The ABS’ own website advises (so I’m told) that there have been 14 incidents in the past 3 years; that (a little less sanguine than the politicians have sought to imply) ought to give us, them and Mungo McCallum pause. And then, on radio this morning, I heard the Minister say that “Hacking” is only when someone with evil intent, breaks in, gains data and uses it “for a nefarious purpose”. Most of us might regard “Hacking” as a little less “comprehensive” than that.
    Furthermore, statisticians have poured scorn on the claim by the ABC that the organisation “consulted” before embarking on the huge and difficult task of shifting to principally on-line operation in 2016. They contest the truth of the ABS’ assertions.
    It sounds to me as if your correspondent needs some better education in contemporary practices pertaining to data acquisition and retention; he might also pay heed to what Australia’s statisticians have had to say on the matter.
    John Carmody.

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