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Friday lay day – ABS funding should be appropriate and access free

Its my Friday lay day blog and my mini-topic today is a left-over from yesterday’s commentary on the latest Labour Force data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The last few months data has been very volatile and the ABS has finally admitted that their seasonal adjustment techniques have not delivered realistic estimates of employment (and hence unemployment). This matters because many sectors and people use the summary aggregate statistics produced by the ABS, such as the headline unemployment rate for all manner of purposes, some of which are more important than others. The Federal Treasurer’s response to the issue has been predictably asinine. This is a person who has cut the national statistical agency’s budget by more than $68 million in the last year. His solution – force a user-pays regime onto the ABS so that we will have to pay to access their data to work out what is going on in our nation. It has been done before by conservative Australian governments, in part to reduce the flow of information but also, more mindlessly, to ‘save’ money – in a currency that the government issues! That is how mindless neo-liberal bean counters get.

The National Statistician (now retired) wrote in his Review, as the introduction to the – Annual Report 2012-13 – that:

As we seek to address the increasing demand for statistics and to reduce the cost of responding to our collections, I remain concerned about the wide range of ageing and fragile business processes and supporting infrastructure used by the ABS, our difficult capital position, which is barely adequate to ‘keep the lights on’, and the impact these are having on our costs and on our staff.

This situation has been exacerbated by further government-wide efficiency dividends over the past year which resulted in my decisions to cancel the Work, Life and Family Survey (WoLFS) and to change the Tourist Accommodation Survey from a quarterly to an annual collection. The overall situation has been progressively impacting on the time and effort required to produce key official statistics on time and to the quality expected by our users and now seriously compromises our longer-term sustainability.

As a reflection of these concerns, the ABS lobbied the Federal Government for an additional $300 million just to ‘keep the lights on’!

The opposite happened. The current Federal Government cut a further $68 million dollars from the ABS Budget this year which “came on top of a $10 million reduction the previous year under Labor”.

The ABC reported this morning – ABS staff say data undermined by funding cuts, lack of leadership – that:

Over the 2013-14 and 2014-15 financial years, the organisation has lost 350 staff and also been without a chief statistician, essentially a chief executive, for months.

As the on-going and ridiculously named ‘efficiency dividend’ cuts were imposed the ABS, it responded on June 5, 2014, with this press statement – ABS announces planned changes to future work program – which outlined the way it would deal with the requirement that they reduced expenditure by $50 million over a 3-year period.

The Treasurer has responded to the widespread concern about the accuracy of the Labour Force estimates, within this funding context, by saying that:

I’m not writing out a blank cheque for the Australian Bureau of Statistics – I don’t write blank cheques – but we have been for some months working on a new plan for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, including better utilisation of resources and also importantly, better ways of collecting data …

And the press is now reporting today – for example – Joe Hockey eyes new fee to fix dodgy ABS jobs data – that the Treasurer wants to introduce a user-pays system for accessing ABS data to raise money.

He is going to take a proposal of such a user-pays system “to Cabinet in the coming weeks”.

He might consider the response of the last Conservative Treasurer who abandoned the user-pays system that the previous Conservative government had put in place.

The UK Guardian article (October 10, 2014) – Paying for ABS data: experts warn Hockey idea ‘extremely detrimental’ – reminds us all of what happened when they last tried to impose this system.

Data use dried up and the suppressed public access to information was damaging to the transparency of policy decisions, an essential aspect of a free society.

As a researcher, I can say that as our research funds are limited many of us stopped using the ABS data and instead started to test our theories using free data from other nations, in particular the US.

It is ironic that the US, the homeof the free market (allegedly) has a massive and excellent public data service, none of which is provided on a user-pays basis. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, has the best data of any agency.

If the ABS is forced to impose a user-pays system, then the same trends will follow.

Even the previous budget-surplus obsessed Treasurer, Peter Costello told the nation when the government abandoned its last attempt at imposing a user-pays system on ABS data use that:

Statistics are so vital to our national life, and have made such a key contribution to nation-building, that they lend themselves easily to structural analogies …

They are the cornerstone of our decision-making, the very building blocks of research, planning and discussion within governments and the community and are one of the important pillars of our democracy. Ready access to those statistics for those that need them is of paramount importance.

That would be about the only statement by the previous Treasurer that I would ever agree with. But it was a sound logic and led to the then government abandoning the charge for ABS publication.

The new Treasurer should revisit that logic.

I should add the same sort of ‘efficiency’ cuts were imposed on the Australian Tax Office (losing 2329 staff at last count in the current year), which has impacted severely on its capacity to deal with tax evasion and tax fraud. It is ironic that the impact of the Government’s obsession with cutting the fiscal balance is that they undermine the capacity of its own tax office to collect revenue.

That is about as mindless as it gets.

The Supernatural – Peter Green

To get over all of that and to finish this week off (when does a week actually start and end anyway?), here is one of my favourite all-time tracks. It will take us all back into an ethereal zone where the beauty of a reverb-soaked and heavily sustained guitar provides respite. For me anyway!

It was first on the album – A Hard Road – from the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which came out in 1967. I had a copy in early 1968, given the delay in getting records from the UK in those days.

The record was the first John Mayall released after Eric Clapton left the band and was replaced by Peter Green, just before he also took off to form Fleetwood Mac.

For guitar buffs, the Supernatural was a D minor jam with the most sensational sustain down around the 13th fret. As a teenager the sound that Peter Green achieved on his 1959 burst Les Paul (with the top pickup reversed so the magnets played out of phase) was everything to dream for.

Still is!

Saturday Quiz

The Saturday Quiz will be back again tomorrow. It will be of an appropriate order of difficulty (-:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2014 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. 68 million is peanuts in the broad scope of things.
    Even in the context of derranged budget cuts that hockey and swann were undertaking.
    Therefore this is another ideological attack. Even if you limit yourself to the neo-liberal mindset the cause-effect benefit of not having a well funded Bureau of Statistics will be a disaster.
    Australia is joing a very small group of nations which dont ‘care’ enough to ‘measure’ how much they dont care. (north korea comes to mind)

    Even outside the economic sphere: When Bill wrote about the empirical evidence of plain packaging to reduce smoking that was ABS data versus right wing think tank rubbish. It will be putting a paywall up for a lot of scientific and social research too 🙁

  2. And all this is completely at odds with the government’s open data policy. Turnbull and Cormann as responsible ministers for this policy appear to be sidelined. An interesting battle could be on the horizon – is it now a dead?

  3. I can give a little history of earlier Howard-era cuts to the Federal Public Service from a paper I researched and wrote in 2000/2001. It was self-directed resarch and thinking, not part of any course nor for general publication. I was in the Federal Public Service (DSS/Centrelink) as a clerical and systems worker fairly close, organisationally speaking, to the workers at the “coal face” via a training and system support role.

    “In 1996, when the John Howard led coalition sought election to its first term, one of its promises (not a core promise as it turned out) was that the public service was not going to be cut. After the election that all changed. In a speech by the Hon. Dr. David Kemp MP, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, at the Committee for Development of Australia, Melbource, 25 February 1998, Dr. Kemp boasted, “Under our Government the APS has reduced in size by almost 12% between June 1996 and December 1997…The underlying size of the APS after the impact of transferring functions of the APS has reduced from 156,654 in 1987 to 126,390 at the end of 1997.”

    They have been up to these shennanigans for as long time. There is always a degradation in service as the cuts are always deep and unecessary. With a growing country we need a growing public service.

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