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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 796


Senator BOURNE —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Treasurer, with responsibility for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Can the minister confirm that, in contrast to Australian policy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and many other countries keep and maintain their census data and that UNESCO issued a policy recommendation in 1992 that population census records should be retained? Does the minister agree that the census represents an invaluable and irreplaceable source of data and that for this reason academics, national historians, social planners and medical researchers are urging that census records be kept under strict privacy conditions? Given that the existing policy was developed almost 100 years ago, will the minister consider reviewing current practice?


Senator COOK —I know that the Australian Bureau of Statistics keeps good international contacts, but I understand that it is not aware of any such ruling. I do not say that such a ruling does not exist, but my understanding is that the bureau is not aware of one at this moment. I will ask the bureau to check.

  The practices are widely different between different countries. While it is true, as Senator Bourne said in her question, that the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada keep their forms, Australia does not; nor do Germany, Italy, Japan or the Netherlands. The practice varies according to the country. Usually the reason why it is different is each country's view of confidentiality and privacy matters.

  I know that the ABS is concerned to respect Australian views of high levels of privacy and confidentiality in dealing with the census and has regard to national standards in that sense. I also know that the ABS's view is that, if Australian citizens think that the original forms are maintained with their names, addresses, et cetera on them, that may degrade the quality of the census itself because people will be disinclined to reply to the census and give full information if they think that their privacy may at some time be invaded. It is for that reason that the bureau disposes of the forms after they have been collated and the information which is contained therein has been properly programmed and kept.

  The second part of the question concerns national resources information. I admit that is true; indeed, that is the purpose of the census. But researchers can have access to the findings of the census without actually going to the original returned forms of the people being surveyed. I think Senator Bourne will find that nearly all of the research requirements that people may have can be best met that way.

  Finally, Senator Bourne cites the cost figures, which I understand to be the cost figures of collecting the census itself. One has to offset the need for privacy, the respect of privacy, and whether people will respond if they believe the forms are not disposed of, against the cost of disposal of the forms in the end. It really turns on the privacy-confidentiality principle.


Senator BOURNE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, but would he please tell me whether he believes that there is any empirical evidence to support the fact that Australians would not fill in their census forms correctly if they thought they were being kept? If not, will he ask the Treasurer to please consider a review to get some evidence and to find out what Australians actually want done with their census forms?


Senator COOK —I will certainly refer Senator Bourne's question to the Treasurer, who is responsible for the bureau. Senator Bourne has to accept that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is in the professional business of collecting information all the time and therefore has a coalface, practical understanding of people's concerns about privacy and the ends to which the information that they might provide under cover of privacy might be put. Therefore, when the bureau says that it thinks that the quality of the survey could be degraded if there was a belief that the forms were maintained—


Senator Bourne —Are you going to have a review?


Senator COOK —I am answering the second part of the honourable senator's supplementary question. There are substantial reasons why the bureau thinks that. As I said, I will refer the question to the Treasurer and, if there is anything that he wishes to add to my remarks, I will pass it on in due course.