P. P. McGuinness, “Canberra’s social revolution,”
The Australian Financial Review, September 21, 1976, p. 4.
In a couple of weeks the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be publishing the first issue of a new statistical publication, Social Indicators, virtually a manifesto of the changes in orientation of Australian statistics over the past few years.
The present outpouring of social statistics from the bureau would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Australia was one of the worst served advanced countries of the world on accurate statistical knowledge of its own social structure and problems.
In the 19th century Australia was statistically one of the most advanced countries in the world. The eminent New South Wales Government Statistician Sir Timothy Augustus Coghlan, upon whose work all subsequent economic history of 19th century Australia is based (with greater or lesser acknowledgement), established a standard which was well in advance of that of most other countries.
Like many of the high hope of pre-federation Australia, this initiative foundered in the long intellectual night which followed World War 1 and the Spanish influenza epidemic.
And the final blow to the standing of the then Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was when Sir Roland Wilson moved over from heading it to the position of Secretary of the Treasury.
The result was the destruction of the Research Directorate of the bureau and the complete subjection of the bureau to the requirements of the Treasury as far as its statistical collections were concerned.
This is referred to, ever so discretely, in the report of the Coombs Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration, when it recommended that “a research unit under the charge of a Research Director be re-established with the Australia Bureau of Statistics.”
Since its establishment by the Whitlam Government as a statutory authority, and in response to the demands of that Government for more hard information relevant to the needs of social welfare, the ABS has blossomed out into a new productivity comparable only to the great days of Coghlan.
Its statisticians, whose “considerable and underused talents,” as the Coombs Report puts it, had for years chafed under the restraints and domination of Treasury, have in only a couple of years made a major contribution to Australian social statistics.
In this they are serving the needs of the Government and of government departments as a whole, regardless of political colour. Social policy, even if it is to be directed towards the devolution of central authority and towards such non-socialist schemes as a guaranteed minimum income as advocated by such economists as Milton Friedman, can only be effectively implemented when the authorities know what they are doing.
The same is true of industry policy. It is typical of Treasury’s attitude — or, at least, of the small clique of senior officials whose ideological attitudes dominate the Treasury — that there should have been a concerted attempt earlier this year to kill the IMPACT study being carried out by the ABS, the Industries Assistance Commission and the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, together with the Department of Industry and Commerce and other agencies.
The IMPACT study is designed to integrate the results of the Borrie National Population Inquiry and other demographic studies into medium-term projections of the developments in the Australian labour force and industry structure.
The social implications of these changes will obviously be immense. It is important that they should be studied and integrated into overall economic and social policy.
This is particularly the case when we will have to suffer for many years the aftermath of the now manifest large-scale unemployment among young people. Such unemployment has had enormous, and frightening, consequences for the quality of life in American cities in recent years. Australia is likely to have to face up to them in the not too distant future.
Only too often the gerontocracy dominating all Australian institutions forgets that, as the most recent bureau statistics on the age distribution of the population bring out, as of June, 1975, 50% of the Australian population is under the age of 28.
Maybe that part of the below-28 population which is under the control of the Canberra bureaucrats will accept their assumptions and norms, but the vast majority of this group will not.
Thus, it is none too soon that the Bureau of Statistics should be engaging in the study of trends in, to name the nine chapter headings of its new publication, Population, Health, Education, Working Life, Income, Social Security, Housing, Criminal Justice and Aborigines.
Almost simultaneously it is publishing the results of the General Social Survey, carried out in collaboration with the Family Research Unit at the University of New South Wales.
The first bulletin, issued only a few days ago, establishes that about one in 11 one-parent families have a female head, a fact of great importance to the formulation of policies regarding the female labour force.
And future bulletins will contain information on victims of crime, leisure time activities and gun ownership. This last may come as something of a shock; but it should never be forgotten that the inevitable companion of large scale unemployment among the young is an increase in crime, drug use, prostitution and the use of firearms.
It is as well that our statistical services are now equipped to trace the dimensions of these phenomena.
Of course, the new activities of the bureau spread wider than this.
It has, for example, started publication of the Household Expenditure Survey of 1974-75. This, as well as giving invaluable data on household incomes and spending patterns (among other things, the necessary basis of any sensible discussion of the cost of living, as distinct from the Consumer Price Index), might make it possible to come to grips with the elusive household savings ratio, whose behaviour is the central uncertainty of economic policy at present.
Most of the new activity has been the result of the new found independence of the bureau from the Treasury. But the present Government, no doubt without having considered the matter in any detail, moved the bureau back under the jurisdiction of the Treasurer. It is still formally independent of Treasury, but naturally the Treasurer’s chief advisers are in Treasury.
If the spectacular improvement in social statistics is to be maintained surely it would be desirable for the Government to implement the recommendations of the Coombs Commission that the ABS be removed from the ambit of Treasury and placed in a neutral department, such as Senator Withers’s Department of Administrative Services, where it will be able to serve all departments of State equally.
For, essential as good economic statistics are, they do not tell the whole story regarding the State or the Nation.
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