Thursday, May 07, 2015

Census saved. $250 million boost for ABS


The census has been saved and the Australian Bureau of Statistics will get a $250 million funding boost as part of the biggest technology upgrade in its 110-year history.

The five-year grant, which will be included in next week's federal budget, will be used to replace computer systems that are up to 30 years old, some of which fail to perform properly weekly and daily.

The government's expenditure review committee was told the bureau had 500 separate computer systems. One in three were unreliable and one in six were so outdated they were no longer supported by their vendors.

The bureau proposed releasing it from the obligation to conduct next year's census as a way of funding the upgrade but the budget committee rejected the request after sounding out Labor. The Census and Statistics Act requires the bureau to conduct the census every five years and ny change to that Act would have needed support in the Senate that Labor was unwilling to guarantee.

The $250 million boost is a win for the treasurer's parliamentary secretary Kelly O'Dwyer, who championed the bureau's cause before the expenditure review committee.

The committee was told the bureau's systems had become so run down they were calling into question the reliability of the monthly employment statistics which are compiled using components first commissioned in 1982.

Ms O'Dwyer said the previous Labor governments had ripped $45 million out of the ABS. "They treated it like a honey pot, they put it at risk. Critical infrastructure was left to deteriorate. The labour force figures were unreliable as a result."

The bureau's chief David Kalisch said the money would enable the ABS to perform an entire technology upgrade with most of its systems to be replaced with three common platforms; one for data collection, one for processing and one for statistical products.

The new systems would connect "computer to computer" to other parts of government taking in data such as births, deaths and marriages and immigration statistics. Over time the bureau would be able to expand to collect data automatically from organisations such as the Tax Office.

The system would also be able to deliver data direct to government departments and economic analysts.

Mr Kalisch said he was delighted and encouraged by the confidence that the government had shown.

The ABS will now deliver the full census on August 9, 2016 as originally planned with preparations well advanced. It will be Australia's first "digital first" census, with two-thirds of households expected to complete their forms online.

Martin Bell, a professor of human geography at the University of Queensland who has been campaigning to keep the census, said: "If the census had gone, or gone 10-yearly instead of five-yearly, it would have been a bloody disaster. It really is the only comprehensive source of information we have at the local level. There is no substitute."

"If we had lost it, we would have been at risk of making uninformed decisions about investments in infrastructure, in social services and urban planning. The government is to be congratulated."

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald