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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20550

Ms JULIE BISHOP (10:01 AM) —When amendments are said to be mere technicalities or purely technical, I like to look behind them and see what the legislation is actually all about.

Mr Cox —Go for it.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —I will. I've got 20 minutes; come and sit down!

Mr Cox —I have got a committee meeting.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —As the member for Kingston has indicated, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is a venerable institution of the Australian government. Its antecedence lies in the individual statistical collection of the agencies of the pre-Federation colonial governments. After the initial effort at national coordination through the annual conference of statisticians—now there is a conference we could have attended!—these separate functions were complemented by a single national body, the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, established in 1905 through the Census and Statistics Act. Here is a quiz night question: who was the first Commonwealth Statistician? The answer is Sir George Knibbs.

After three decades the various state governments came to the realisation that it was in their interests to wholly transfer statistical responsibilities to the Commonwealth bureau, and so it moved to Canberra from Melbourne with the transfer of the national capital. Yet it was not until the late 1950s that this consolidation process was completed. The next great institutional change was in 1974 when the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was abolished and replaced with today's Australian Bureau of Statistics. This capped off decades of considerable change within Australia's statistical collection, most particularly the introduction of computer processing in the 1960s and the adoption of sampling techniques that allowed for a wider range of statistical surveys to be undertaken. Computerisation had a significant impact on the size and the scale of collections, and the complexity and sophistication of statistical methodology.

This potted history comes from the ABS web site: I encourage members and the public to visit the site not only to learn about the history and practice of the ABS but to access the public information provided by the bureau. It is a treasure-trove of details and information about our nation, our people and our lives. Today the over 3,600 staff of the ABS make a unique contribution to Australian public life. I say it is unique because the ABS fulfils two critical functions or, perhaps more accurately, obligations. The first of these dual obligations is effectiveness. The ABS's collection and analysis is central to policy making by governments but it also strongly influences public debate. The data that it produces is the stuff of Australian politics. More than that, the ABS's work also profoundly shapes Australian politics. As just one example, it is the population analysis of the ABS that determines the make-up of this place, through its role in electoral redistribution. The second obligation is in relation to fidelity. This is the basis for much of that effectiveness. Without a high level of propriety and secrecy in collection and analysis, the ABS's work would be severely compromised. This is why, for instance, ABS employees are expected to abide by stringent secrecy agreements that extend beyond the terms of their employment, thereby protecting the interests of those called upon to participate in ABS surveys. Thus the ABS is expected to be both effective and utterly trustworthy.

It seems that this dual obligation has been inadvertently undermined by amendments made to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975. These amendments were made in 1987 and 1999. The amendments in question have in fact thrown into doubt whether the secrecy provisions of the original 1905 act which bind ABS employees and ex-employees apply to all the persons to whom they were expected to apply. Thus this bill ensures that this coverage is universal, as has always been intended, and validates practices of the ABS since 1987 that may also have been thrown into doubt by this unfortunate situation. I note that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration is here. As he noted in his second reading speech—

Mr Slipper —It was a very good speech actually.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —It was a very good speech and I have drawn on it for much of the speech that I am making now.

Mr Slipper —Not plagiarism?

Ms JULIE BISHOP —Not at all, but I will quote you directly:

This will put beyond doubt the protection of ABS data absolutely, as parliament has intended.

A further aspect of the bill is its recognition that the ABS has an important role to play in the international community. Widely regarded as one of the `world's best international statistical citizens', the ABS provides particular assistance to its counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region, including through collaboration with the Australian Agency for International Development. The ABS is also an active participant in the United Nations Statistical Commission. That commission was established in 1946. Its terms of reference are to assist the economic and social council of the UN in promoting the development of national statistics and the improve-ment of their comparability in the coordination of the statistical work of specialised agencies and the like. The UN Statistical Commission also plays an important global role through its development of the International Comparison Program. That allows for international economic comparison through purchasing power parity. This is a program that was established in 1968, interestingly as a joint venture of the United Nations and the International Comparison Unit of the University of Pennsylvania, with financial contributions from the Ford Foundation and the World Bank.

So the ABS has a role in the international framework of statistics collection and analysis. In fact, the International Comparison Program is a cooperative international statistical undertaking. It involves global, regional and national agencies. The agencies are all agencies with whom our ABS has a relationship: for example, the statistics division of the Asian Development Bank, the statistics division of the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and the World Bank group. Because of this role the ABS also seeks the input and participation of officials from other parts of the Australian government, and this bill will allow the ABS to second officers for these very important international purposes. The twin aspects of the bill will enhance the effectiveness and fidelity of the ABS operations—the dual obligations—and as such the amendments make a positive contribution to Australian public life and accordingly should attract the support of all members. I commend the bill to the chamber.