Former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan fronts a parliamentary inquiry into the 2016 Census.
Former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan fronts a parliamentary inquiry into the 2016 Census. Contributed

Former top statistician says Census name-call was illegal

AUSTRALIA'S former chief statistician has told a parliamentary inquiry that requiring people to give their names on the 2016 Census was both illegal and counter-intuitive to getting a true view of Australian households.

Bill McLennan, who headed the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 1995 to 2000, fronted the Federal Senate References Committee in Canberra as it investigated August's Census debacle.

He warned the ABS it had broken both the law and Australians' trust by mandating they provide their names on the survey. He also refuted the ABS's claim it had already been compulsorily requiring names since 1910.

"I personally think that is wrong... it's always been collected on a voluntary basis,” he said.

"It's pretty obvious that's not covered by the Census and Statistics Act.”

Mr McLennan said the law stated any data required must be compiled as statistics and published - something that could not be with names if the public's privacy were to be respected.

He added breaking the public's trust - or even being seen to do so - would not help the ABS in its endeavours to paint a true representation of the Australian population.

"I don't think the general public has any real idea what the ABS plans after data-matching, and that the ABS has no idea what the impact of such a change would have on the vital co-operation the ABS needs from the community if it is to continue to do its job effectively,” he said.

"If the people don't want to answer questions, they don't - or they answer them incorrectly.

"So you have got to have co-operation.”

Mr McLennan said the social contract between the ABS and the community had been broken by the decision to compulsorily require names.

He recommended the ABS be required to report all data matching it intended to do - cross-matching Census figures with other data sets - so parliament and the public understood what was going on.

He said funding cuts had affected the bureau but its real issues were borne of a lack of experience within its ranks.

"I often wonder why they're making certain decisions that they do make,” he said.

"They may be lacking numbers too, but they are lacking numbers of people with experience.”