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Transcript of press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 1 August 2016: 2016 census; Labor's win in Herbert; Royal Commission into NT juvenile detention; demand-driven university admissions; constitutional recognition

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SUBJECT/S: 2016 Census; Labor’s win in Herbert; Royal Commission into NT juvenile detention; Demand-driven university admissions; Constitutional Recognition

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: In eight days’ time, Australians will be filling out the Census, the most important survey that Australia conducts. Taken every five years, the Census determines the allocation of important resources across communities and across socio-economic groups in Australia. Today I'm urging Australians to make sure those census forms are filled in accurately.

But it’s deeply concerning to Labor that with just eight days to go before the Census, it’s unclear which government minister is responsible. Is it the Treasurer, Scott Morrison? The Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer? It was Alex Hawke, the Parliamentary Secretary, but his position has been abolished. Newspaper reports today suggest that perhaps Michael McCormack was handed responsibility for the census last week.

This just isn't good enough. Australians have a right to hear from the Turnbull Government about the changes to data retention that are being proposed under the Census. The proposal is to extend the retention of names from eighteen months through to four years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is busy enough without having to do the job of Turnbull Government Ministers as well. They need to be coming out here and firstly saying who is responsible for the Census, and secondly making it clear why they have changed the period for retention of names. Regardless of how frustrated people are with the Turnbull Government's ineptitude, I'll finish where I started. Australians should not spoil the Census. It is an important tool with which we allocate resources. It is particularly important for vulnerable communities.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Do Australians have a legitimate fear about having their names retained under the Census given the history of the Census has always been not to have names related to the information?

LEIGH: These names have been retained in the past for eighteen months. The proposal now is to extend that period through to four years. The Statistician, David Kalisch, has made careful arguments in the public domain on that. He's somebody who I respect and who I think is doing a good job. But the government has chosen to make this change, and the government should be out there defending it.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there is a case for a re-election in the seat of Herbert to resolve many of these concerns?

LEIGH: I think Cathy O'Toole has been elected and it does make you wonder why Malcom Turnbull was up there declaring victory for the Liberal Party a couple of weeks ago. Cathy O'Toole will be a fabulous member for Herbert. I've campaigned with her in Townsville, I've seen first-hand how her experience in business and the community sector will make her an outstanding representative of Townsville. If people want to challenge the results in the courts, of course they're able to do that. But as far as I'm concerned, the people of Herbert have spoken and they've elected an outstanding member in Cathy O'Toole.

JOURNALIST: There are also reports that the Chief Justice appointed to head up the Royal Commission into the youth justice system in the Northern Territory is reconsidering his role. Do you think he's the best person to do this, considering the perceived conflicts of interest?

LEIGH: Labor has always provided bipartisan support to the Royal Commission, and it is up to Malcolm Turnbull now to make absolutely clear the status of the Royal Commissioner. Labor repeats our call for two indigenous Co-Commissioners. We believe that would be appropriate, and it would show a sense of respect from the Royal Commission for indigenous people, and a willingness to work with indigenous people on the Royal Commission.

JOURNALIST: More than twelve months ago the ABS actually countenanced dropping the census altogether. Do you think this may be the last census that we will have in this form?

LEIGH: Let's hope not, and I think there's great value in the Census in terms of Australians being able to participate in this national exercise. Sure, you could make statistical arguments over what can be done with smaller sample sizes. But Australians will be, in many cases, pleased to participate in this exercise. Censuses have a history going back millennia. They are an important way of making sure that all of Australia is encapsulated, particularly for small and remote communities. It's really important that the Census reaches out and is able to give us a snapshot of our nation.

JOURNALIST: But we actually just saw, with the Australian Electoral Commission, the fact that we have had the lowest turnout since compulsory voting was introduced, with many isolated communities showing fairly large falls. Is the bureaucracy being put under too much pressure in terms of delivering to these isolated communities and how can the Census can be excluded from that sort of pressure?

LEIGH: The Census receives, of course, bipartisan support. The Bureau of Statistics works very hard to make sure that they properly encapsulate what's going on in remote communities. But that is one of the reasons why the Bureau of Statistics should not also have to do the work of Turnbull Government ministers in explaining policy changes. They are stretched, as you rightly say, in reaching out to those remote communities and making sure that all Australians are encapsulated in the national Census.

JOURNALIST: You might have gone to this before, but those privacy concerns that have been raised by some advocates - have you sought a briefing from the Government on this? Or do you have any confidence that the measures taken to guarantee people's privacy are in fact sufficient? Or do you retain some concerns?

LEIGH: The Bureau of Statistics has a very strong record in maintaining data confidentiality. But I can understand why people are concerned, and that's why I have been frankly surprised that the Government hasn't been out there explaining to Australians, reassuring them if that's appropriate, that these changes are proportionate and reasonable. To leave that task to the Bureau of Statistics shows a failure by the Turnbull Government to step up and take responsibility for policy issues. I remember well when Peter Costello had responsibility for the Census, him standing up in Parliament and speaking proudly about the Census that night, urging all Australians to participate. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a Turnbull Government minister who has spoken up about any aspect of the Census, and perhaps that is because they are not even sure who is responsible for it.

JOURNALIST: But do you have any substantive concerns? I mean, as far as we can tell there's been no substantial change to the way in which the actual data is being held, it's just being held for slightly longer. Do you believe that the concerns are ill-founded, or do you think there is a reasonable basis for them?

LEIGH: With respect, it's not my job to be standing here justifying decisions of the Turnbull Government. It's appropriate for the Turnbull Government - who has all of information about why these changes have been made - to come before you and reassure Australians. I've argued at the beginning and end of my press conference that on the threshold issue, Australians shouldn't spoil the Census. But I am disappointed the Turnbull Government hasn't done a better job in explaining these changes. With just 8 days to go they have got a chance to fix that up and I urge them to do that today.

JOURNALIST: By coming out here and having a press conference, aren't you stoking fear in the community about the Census?

LEIGH: I've been absolutely categorical that Australians should not spoil the Census. It's important that everyone fills out their forms. But it's also important that the Turnbull Government ministers do their job. That's not too much to ask.

JOURNALIST: Just on another issue, the Group of Eight universities, which includes ANU, have said that more people are going to uni because business wants them to and that we should do more to encourage them to take up a trade rather than rack up more debt. Do you think that's an issue of concern?

LEIGH: I don't think we should be trying to dissuade anyone from going to university, we've seen the wage return from attending university stay pretty constant over the course of the last generation, which suggest that there's just as much demand in the labour force for people with a university education now, as there was back when just 10% of cohort attend attended university. Today the Australian National University will be celebrating its 70th birthday. As a former ANU professor I'll be popping in. ANU has done a great deal, as many other universities have, to try attract people from low socio- economic backgrounds, Indigenous Australians, making sure the doors of university are open to everyone. We need to continue doing that. The demand-driven system in Australian higher education is one of the great drivers of social mobility in Australia. That's one reason that Labor was so concerned at the last election about proposals to increase the cost of university. We didn't want low socio-economic Australians to be priced out of going to university.

JOURNALIST: They’re arguing that this is having the unintended impact of devaluing university degrees?

LEIGH: I've certainly seen no hard evidence of that. Yes, we need to make sure that we maintain retention rates, which we do not just get people into first year but actually see them walk across the stage at graduation. But the hard data that I've seen suggests that the labour market rewards university degrees as much as it's ever done. That suggests that the decision that the Rudd and Gillard governments made to ensure that all Australians that had the talents to get a place at university could go there was absolutely the right decision.

JOURNALIST: Regarding constitutional recognition - yesterday Bill Shorten expanded slightly on his thoughts about what he'd like to see in terms of a treaty, or multiple treaties, along with recognition. Is there a risk that this more expansive approach could imperil the whole enterprise?

LEIGH: I think it’s important that we maintain this conversation with a sense of respect. That we recognise the wrongs that have been done. That we sit down and listen to indigenous Australians. That's what Bill Shorten was doing at the Garma Festival over the weekend and that's the approach that Labor will always take towards constitutional recognition. Frankly, I've found it a bit strange to see the political party that campaigned against native title now fearmongering on Indigenous constitutional recognition. It enjoys bipartisan support from Labor. Labor is committed to making sure Indigenous

reconciliation works, but it will work only if we engage in a respectful conversation which includes a whole range of issues, not simply trying to narrow things down.

JOURNALIST: But do you think that so-called “minimalist model” can still carry the day, following Mr Shorten's comments and particularly in the climate that we've got at the moment?

LEIGH: Well let's be open to the conversation. Let's not think that we need to close things off. Let's recognise the wrongs that were done to traditional Australians. Let's understand the appropriate concerns over rising Indigenous incarceration rates, over a huge a huge life-expectancy gap, an employment gap, an education gap. And also the real desire for broader constitutional recognition. If we don't engage in that conversation respectfully, we're not going to have a referendum which truly satisfies Indigenous Australians and which will able to win the support of a majority all Australians.

No other questions? Thanks, everyone.