Lies, damned lies and the Morrison government’s statistics

Apr 2, 2022
Liberal Party Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Liberal Party Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Image: Flickr / Andrew Murray

Retiring Liberal Party Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has taken full aim at the “corrupt antics” of Scott Morrison and his “consigliere” Alex Hawke. If the Prime Minister and his inner circle have “no moral compass” and choose to lie at will, how can Australians get a grip on the facts and whether it’s time for a change?

Help is at hand in a new comprehensive Index of Australia’s wellbeing and security.

As Yuval Harari has so insightfully observed, “Humans are a post-truth species”. And as if that wasn’t discombobulating enough, they now live in a post-truth world in which the most prominent, powerful and audacious liars appear to prosper more than they suffer.

Thousands of lies were told by Donald Trump while he held a megaphone at the White House, and yet more than 74 million Americans voted for him in the 2020 US presidential election. He lost the election, of course, but his track record of reward for lies (rewards which he continues to expect) has emboldened some Australian leaders, particularly the Prime Minister and his close confidant Alex Hawke, in this last term of parliament to lie shamelessly and conspicuously. It is as though some Australian leaders have come to assume that there is no consequence too horrible that may arise from lying compared to the alternative prospect of losing office.

In Australia, though, our governments have been more subtle and sophisticated than Mr Trump. They have taken a more insidious and systematic approach to managing perceptions and keeping control of the narrative. One tactic used has been to transform Australia’s institutional arrangements into a secret state. This has been achieved by actions including refusal of FOI applications, intimidation of journalists, jail penalties for whistleblowers and protesters, suppression of lobbyist and donation registers, a profusion of disproportionately threatening defamation actions launched by politicians, and a refusal to establish a federal anti-corruption commission. All of these and more have laid a veil of secrecy and fear over our public discourse, clamping down so hard on what we can and can’t say and know that news media businesses of all political persuasions joined up in 2019 to launch a “Right to Know” campaign and the ABC produced a drama series, “Secret City”, which painted accurate and chilling pictures of what can happen to Australians who cross paths with the security establishment.

But in the internet age there are now so many public sources of freely available data and high quality research reports that it has become obvious, to some ministers at least (most notably Alex Hawke), that if they are to control the narrative and perceptions they will need to interfere with publicly available data as well.

Australia is fortunate in having some amazing public and privately operated managers of vital databases – all of which freely share their data and findings. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is the apex of this set of data collection institutions but in the last few years the government has found it relatively easy to clip their wings by budget cuts. The ABS, for instance, used to produce Year Books providing an overview of statistical information on society, the environment, the economy and industry. They also ran a program called Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) which helped Australians monitor whether we were progressing towards a better quality of life. It covered only a small number of indicators and certainly did not present a threat to the political narrative of a successful “great” Australia that the Abbott government preferred; but it was nevertheless abandoned by his budget cuts in 2014. The ABS still produces data about our health and wellbeing on a wide variety of indicators, but it is now in disparate databases and is difficult, if not impossible, for everyday Australians to access. No consolidated reports are produced about our progress as a nation. The last Year Book was published in 2012.

It hasn’t been quite so easy, however, for the government to shut down private data collection institutions. On the contrary, they have multiplied through foundations and charities like ACOSS, the Australian Conservation Foundation, a whole raft of global institutions such as Transparency International, Earth Watch and the OECD, independent research foundations like The Australia Institute and Essential Research, and of course numerous institutions in universities. There are now hundreds of these entities and they all collect data and publish reports which can and do help us see where things are really at.

But in apparent frustration with the explosion of credible information and reports now being made freely available by these agencies, the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, and the Department of Home Affairs have recently tried to gum up the flow of data by staging a partial (double entendre intended) takeover of one of the most well-known surveys of our society, the hitherto fully independent Scanlon Index of Social Cohesion. This is a high quality, reputable survey and report which has been running for more than 15 years through Monash University with funding from charitable sources.

The report on this year’s Scanlon Index surveys – Mapping Social Cohesion 2021 – was published in a slightly truncated form compared to previous years with some negative data being removed from the report. And alongside the Index (or rather, subsuming it) we were introduced to a new federal government funded “Australian Cohesion Index”, the stated aim of which was to “redraw the map on social cohesion”. This new index incorporated the Scanlon Index of Social Cohesion as a set of “subjective” measures of cohesion and added in 24 other “objective” measures of a cohesive society.

Unfortunately, the new Australian Cohesion Index obscures somewhat more than it reveals and is outright misleading on its objective indicators due to the selectivity and narrow scope of the indicators chosen and the baseline dates and time periods that have been used for reporting on trends. A mere 24 objective measures of our “material conditions, health, education, participation and connections” do not suffice for an accurate picture of Australia’s “cohesion” – not by a long shot. And because of the exclusion of a broader array of indicators and a wider time scale, the picture painted by this ostensible index of our current “cohesion” is, on balance, demonstrably false.

For instance, the indicators selected to monitor material conditions relate to income and assets and the ultimate results are published as a positive gain between 2008 and 2018. The implication is:

  • that economic growth per capita is improving – when in fact it is not;
  • that household incomes are growing substantially – when in the broader trend they are not;
  • that poverty is declining – when in the broader trend it is not; and
  • that income inequality is lessening – when in the broader trend it is not.

Reliance on a small number of cherry-picked indicators has led to a set of quite serious misrepresentations and the whole exercise has resulted in conclusions being drawn that bear little relation, and sometimes none, to the actual data relied upon.

What’s more, several indicators chosen as “objective” measures don’t monitor our “social cohesion” at all. They simply lie – either directly or by serious omission – about our real health and wellbeing as Australians and as a nation. They tell the biggest lies in relation to our education, insulting Australians with an aggregate index score that promotes our education system as though it has delivered better results for us overall, when in fact the system has been systematically attacked by governments over the last decade and our educational attainment scores have dropped severely compared to other OECD countries. The same negative results would apply for vital structures that underpin our democracy, such as transparency and trust in governments and politicians. But no such measures were assessed as part of Minister Hawke’s Australian Cohesion Index. If they had been, the results would not testify to a cohesive democracy in 2022.

The new “Australian Cohesion Index” reports a result that boils our progress in social cohesion down to a couple of numbers – presumably hoping that, if we look at all, we will look away from the truth as quickly as the government would prefer. It portrays the result as a small decline of cohesion between 2008 and 2018 – a drop from 100 to a score of 97 in relation to the 24 new objective indicators, and a drop from 100 to a score of 94 on the original subjective domains in the Scanlon Index. Clearly, there is only so much they can do to disguise the sad story that is really present in these data. But even so, the overall negative result has audaciously been promoted in positive terms as “social cohesion in broadly solid shape, despite COVID-19”. This runs counter to their own actual data.

With regard to the “subjective” domains of the original Scanlon Index, the data show quite clearly that Australia’s social cohesion is in decline, having improved only once in the history of surveys undertaken by the Scanlon Foundation – way back in 2009. Thereafter it has been mostly downhill for Australia’s sense of social cohesion and has been noticeably downhill in terms of attitudes to immigration, multiculturalism and diversity. The current score for our social cohesion on the Scanlon Index is the lowest in the history of the survey. None of that justifies a positive spin, especially in the absence of any data about cohesion across genders. But the spin clearly shows that the government appears to have given up dealing with the reality of our nation’s problems and has instead decided to concentrate on shaping favourable perceptions of its record. And this at a time when Australians really need to know the truth about the fracturing of our cohesion, so that we can suspend the decline before we end up replicating Trump’s America.

In contrast with this lamentable lapse in vital reporting on our national wellbeing, a different approach has been taken in development of a new National Wellbeing Index by Australian Community Futures Planning. This new Australia Together National Wellbeing Index brings together data from a wide array of credible research and surveys that have somehow defiantly survived the Coalition government’s attempts to extinguish them. The new Index puts these diverse and valuable data sets into a single space which any Australian can then easily access to help them determine how well we are going as a nation in all our diversity. And it augments that with a variety of other indicators of performance on strategies and policies necessary to build the sort of future we want. Uniquely, this new Index looks forward as well as backward.

The Australia Together National Wellbeing Index currently contains 265 indicators of our wellbeing and security as a nation and is growing. It more than fills the gap in statistics and data tracking left by the ABS when its Measures of Australia’s Progress program and its Year Books were shut down. And it provides ready access to meaningful factual data that Australians can begin to use to develop plans for the future they really want to build together. It contains a much fuller picture than we have ever had of the true state of our society, environment, economy, democracy and international standing – a resource Australians need if they are to chart a course to a better future.

Can this new Index help Australians sift through the lies and obfuscations of our recent governments? A recent report called “The State of Australia 2022” setting out the facts of our recent progress as a nation, based on the Australia Together National Wellbeing Index, offers Australians a lot of help for that purpose and new hope for nation building. View The State of Australia 2022 here.

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