The Great Australian Census Debacle


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By Pankaj Yadav

Tuesday, 9th August 2016. 7.15 pm. Midway through my daily evening walk, I suddenly remembered. Tonight was the much publicised Census night! I thought it was more important to finish my Census form than my walk. The thought of incurring a fine of $180, per night of delay in submitting the Census form, didn’t escape me either. So I retraced my steps back home, and immediately got stuck in the Census!

Getting on to the Census website was a breeze. With my Census pass code received in mail, I was able to enter the required details of the three members of my household, in about 40 minutes. I was now on to the last person – my late wife’s English cousin’s 24-year-old son, backpacking through Australia these days. A few error messages started showing up, suggesting I should call a 1300 number. After ignoring messages the first few times, I did call the 1300 number. It was busy. I tried again. A recorded message this time. I persevered with the form.

Hell Freezes Over

Just as I had an uncanny premonition of a website crash, my iPad screen froze. I tried various things, wanting to at the very least, save all the inputs of the last 40 minutes. But I couldn’t get the screens to react even the slightest despite my increasingly frantic keystrokes……

I was not the only one. This or some variation of it happened to most Australians on that fateful Census night.

So what happened? According to Australia’s Chief Statistician, David Kalisch, of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), he and technicians at IBM – the technology provider – had opted to shut down the Census website at 7.45 pm, after a confluence of system failures resulting from cyber interference by as yet unidentified people. “It was an attack, and we believe from

overseas,” Mr. Kalisch said. “It was quite clear it was malicious.”

This was a national bungle. Hardly the sort of thing that one expects to happen in a First World, wealthy country like Australia. I have been in Australia for almost 24 years now. I must have filled in 4 Census forms in this period. Never before, have strong arm tactics and threats been used to get Australians to participate in the Census by the Government. “Fill the Census form on 9th August, or be ready to pay steep fines for every day of lateness”! As it happens, the Government now has egg on its face and has gone all contrite in its tone! “Please fill the Census form by 23rd September. There will be no fines”.

Not fine at all!

I don’t think this is good enough. It’s now the Australian citizens who have every right to ask the Government to pay for their wasted time on Tuesday night. If they were to be penalised heavily for any delays on their part, then every tenet of natural justice would dictate that they should be compensated by the party who failed to live up to its part of the agreement.

Had the Australian Government, as in previous years, used a more friendly tone in its promotion of the Census, I would not feel peeved enough to suggest a compensation to the Australian people. After all, this was going to be Australia’s first electronic Census.  And a grand experiment on this scale always carries a risk of failure with it. After all, unlike the country, I come from, and for very complex reasons that we will discuss on another occasion, Australians are conscientious people always willing to do their duty towards their nation.

The Government takes the Australian people for granted. And this trend has been steadily increasing since the end of the Keating era. The most glaring example being the moratorium imposed on information on the Government’s methods and activities in thwarting the attempts of refugees to make their way to Australia by sea. In our name, the Government does as it pleases, in complete secrecy. Hardly the act of a Government that treats its citizens as its masters!

The Census form itself was poorly designed. It didn’t have a “Save” button. It did have “Save and Exit”. Had the form have a “Save” button, I would have saved the data I had filled up and not wasted my time.

What about the privacy of our data? What confidence can anyone have that our personal information will be safe with the ABS when it’s Census website could be hacked by multiple elements so easily?

Food for thought

Personally, I think this brouhaha about the privacy of our data is a storm in a teacup anyway. All those who think that their private information is actually private, are either living under a rock or in an illusion. Facebook to your grocery store – and of course the Government – knows everything that is worth knowing, about you. And then some! Now I am not suggesting for a minute that you provide all your personal details to the first Nigerian scammer who approaches you by email! Of course, you must exercise caution. But to get worried about the ABS holding on to your name for 4 years – rather than 18 months, as before – is probably not necessary!

So where does the Great Australian Census debacle lead us? It shows once again that arrogant Governments, who do not respect their denizens enough, more often than not, end up having to munch on humble pie for dinner!

We welcome your comments at 

The Indian Telegraph Sydney Australia

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