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Thursday, 6 April 2000
Page: 15455


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (3:36 PM) —I thank my opposition colleagues for supporting me in this debate. I do not know if it is the most important one we have had in 2,000 years, but their support is much appreciated. The Labor Party supports the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in their report titled Saving our census and preserving our history. The Labor Party believes, as was concluded by that committee, that the retention of name-identified 2001 census information and its release after 99 years will make a valuable contribution to preserving Australia's history for future generations. The retention of name-identified 2001 census information will be of great assistance in years to come in genealogical studies, historical studies and sociological studies. The data acquired from the name-identified 2001 census information will also assist in conducting genetic research and epidemiological research.

The assurance of confidentiality is also necessary to ensure the truthfulness and accuracy of responses to census questions. The Labor Party recognises that the Australian Bureau of Statistics raised concerns with the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs about the effect the retention of census information may have on the accuracy and reliability of responses to the census questions. The ABS is to be congratulated on its standing in the statistics community and supported in its efforts to continue being ranked among the very best of statistical agencies in the world. The concerns of the Australian Bureau of Statistics in relation to the 2001 census can be addressed through households having to choose whether or not to opt into the scheme to store name-identified 2001 census information. If households do not wish their name-identified 2001 census information to at any time become public, it should not. This should encourage people to give truthful and accurate responses to the census questions. I understand that the ABS and the Privacy Commissioner are working together in relation to these matters.

The method by which consent is given must be designed in a way which ensures that households understand what they are consenting to, that the views of all members of a household are considered and that households are free to decide whether or not to opt into the scheme to store name-identified 2001 census information for a 99-year period. The ABS and the Privacy Commissioner deserve our support in this work. The government has also adopted the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that the census records be stored for 99 years. This is considerably longer than the usual 30 years for most archive material. The method by which the named census information is stored must also be appropriate to ensure that the privacy of households is maintained. The National Archives of Australia must be supported in this regard.

The Minister for Financial Services and Regulation states that the government will conduct a public educational campaign. That campaign needs to be clear, extensive and informative. The campaign must encourage people to give truthful and accurate responses to the census questions. The educational campaign needs to ensure that it is known that only the census forms completed by those households which explicitly consent to the storage of census information will be kept. That needs to be communicated effectively to all households. The educational campaign needs to be informative. The benefits of the storage of named census information needs to be communicated together with the requirement for households to explicitly consent to the storage of those forms. Households should also be reminded of the other uses of the census information, including its use in formulating public policy and, accordingly, the need for responses to the census information to be truthful and accurate. The Labor Party believes that the results of the 2001 census should be carefully analysed before any decision is made in relation to the retention of named information collected in any subsequent census.

Finally, let me note that politicians are often accused of being short-sighted and not able to see beyond the next election. As you can see, what is being put into effect here represents a proposal for the next 100 years. As I have said previously, I hope that in the meantime the earth does not get hit by a meteor or we do not succumb to greenhouse gas emissions or have some of the more gloomy prognostications overcome us, so our successors can enjoy the benefits of this forward planning.