2016 Census and the erosion of trust

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The weakness of the Coalition Government's argument that the Indigenous and homeless will be better off once counted, has eroded public trust in the 2016 Census, mainly because this did not happen last time, says Ingrid Matthews.

Consider these recent government announcements. Plenty of factors are at play but which is afforded the most weight?

1. A $50 billion spend on submarines

a) Christopher Pyne’s seat

b) Census data

c) Talking national security and border protection in an election campaign

d) Opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to say "strong" a lot

2. A Royal Commission into Northern Territory child protection and youth detention centres

a) A show on the telly

b) A report from the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner

c) Census data

d) Genuine concern that government employees beat and torture black children

3. Another "crackdown" on welfare recipients

a) The treasurer is a sadistic hater

b) Census data

c) Welfare payments are already very tightly targeted

d) Family payments to the middle classes free up their income to invest in negatively-geared properties

4. Removing a tax-free loop hole from the tippy top most richest superannuants

a) We need one policy that signals we are fair-minded

b) We care about older women living in poverty due to inadequate superannuation

c) Census data

d) Malcolm Turnbull has a Mr Harborside Mansion image problem

5. Selling off the Land Titles Office to a Liberal Party donor  the highest bidder

a) The morally bankrupt nature of neoliberalism

b) Highly questionable relationships between major political parties and developers

c) Privatisation gone mad

d) Census data

6. Closing feminist-run services in favour of large contracts for corporate religion

a) The church is just more trustworthy than feminists when it comes to vulnerable children

b) Starting a conversation has more efficacy than safe secure housing

c) Just because more men murder women each year doesn’t mean our policy is terrible

d) Census data

I could go on all day.

But at some level we all get that "sandbagging" and "pork-barrelling" are euphemisms for decisions based on political expedience and nothing at all to do with accurate data capture.

There are many valid concerns about the Census this year. These include data security and encryption and privacy and data linkages across government agencies and retaining our names and addresses for a longer period (18 months up to four years) than the last census, especially when data retention legislation has been passed in the meantime.

These issues have been thoroughly covered by far better minds than mine, such as Ross Floate here, and Richard Chirgwin here, and the indefatigable Asher Wolf, and Rosie Williams’ Little Bird Network.

The legal implications of not complying with the 2016 Census instructions are set out here.

But what is really getting to me are people who say that a robust and accurate census count will be of great benefit policy-wise, and cite Indigenous health and the homeless population to support their argument.

This is a typical tactic. We saw it when Josh Frydenberg said the superannuation changes would benefit older women. Does anyone really believe that the Liberal Party cares more about older women living in poverty than the pressing need to have just one policy to hang claims about "governing for all Australians" on?

The other typical feature of this argument is that the people making it – demographers, bureaucrats and other academics – are absolutely guaranteed to benefit from data linkages. In contrast, there is no guarantee whatsoever – and not a shred of evidence – that census data produces benefits for Aboriginal people’s health or for homeless people.

In the hamfisted way that neoliberal government is done these days, the 2016 Census trust problems continue unaddressed. Instead, a glaringly obvious problem is blundered and stumbled through, blasted and blustered at, urgently plastered over, in a make-shift, ad hoc, amateurish way.

Why? Because the problem is not a significant problem for comfortable middle Australia. It is the "tyranny of the majority" writ large — a phrase that should be familiar to Liberal Party politicians.

Here are a few of the questions I would put to academic and bureaucratic defenders of the changes to the census:

  • Is public schooling a necessity for your children, or a choice?
  • What about hospital cover?
  • Is the GST that a sole parent pays on her child’s school shoes, upfront and at the point of sale, subsidising your investment property? While you judge her?
  • Have you ever been subject to years of Centrelink compliance measures?
  • Have you feared for your life at the hands of your ex/partner?

Do you know anything at all about people in situations you have never encountered, let alone what is best for them?

But science!

Why are demographers and other social scientists saying sciency things without any evidence?

Indigenous people on dialysis and with other co-morbidity diagnoses were counted in the last census. Are they better off? Has anyone asked them? What is the link between data matching and their well being, whether as individuals or a population?

How is "we will know more about your death rates" a convincing argument for people who are under more surveillance than any other peoples on earth?

That is not science. It is disgusting and exploitative.

Homeless people were counted at the last census too, or at least there was a genuine attempt to reach rough sleepers. But housing is a state responsibility. Has anyone seen a propensity of Mike Baird to fund housing services based on data? Or on the number of men who kill women?

Baird has zero regard for evidence-based policy. This is a claim backed by evidence.

Similarly, merely counting the number of people in prisons and detention centres does absolutely nothing for the conditions for people in those places and does absolutely nothing to decrease the rate of incarceration and detention (which are different things, according to the High Court of Australia; see Al-Kateb, critiqued here).

Trotting out some feel-good claim about more accurate measure of Aboriginal life expectancy and twinning this with generalised projections about data and better policy implies that the data collection will somehow improve morbidity rates for Aboriginal people.

But it won’t. The claims are disingenuous at best. Some would say such statements are grossly misleading.

It is also harmful. This messaging is designed to create the impression that government cares about Aboriginal lives — when the opposite is true.

Some reflections on homelessness and the rough sleeper count

In 2011, I was employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) as a special area supervisor — homelessness. The homelessness collection was an attempt to count as many rough sleepers as possible. There was no strategy to identify secondary homelessness. The ABS assumed that people who are couch-surfing would be counted in the households where they were staying that night.

This is naïve at best. A significant proportion of couch-surfers stay with friends or family whose rent is linked to the number of residents in the household. Those tenants are at risk of accumulating a debt, or even eviction, for extending a helping hand.

The causes of homelessness are complex, with multiple overlapping issues such as escaping violence, mental illness and chronic addiction. But ultimately, homelessness can be traced to the breakdown of relationships, whether that is relationship with family, a landlord, an employer, or the State.

Couch surfing is tenuous and fraught; it raises a strong presumption that many relationships have already broken down. Few people in this situation can afford to add more risk to relationships with a host or landlord or the state. To assume that vulnerable people are in a position to take on more risk for the sake of government data collection is to lack insight into their situation.

One of the worst types of homelessness is created by government: temporary accommodation (TA). TA is when the State pays for housing applicants to stay in a motel. It is very widespread – not a one-off stop-gap but a systemised response – and a miserable and expensive failure.

TA creates anxiety. People are compelled to spend every day applying for housing and must re-apply for TA eligibility every week. It creates gross discrimination. Many motel owners split their accommodation and provide vastly inferior services – plastic cutlery, no toilet paper – to TA guests, as though somehow government money buys less service for no reason other than exploitation of the poor — and the taxpayer.

It is a terrible dehumanising system that creates mini-ghettos and resentment, while motel owners net huge profits on the government purse. Motel owners who are, of course, small businesses and thus eligible for the $20,000 immediate write-down at our expense, while touting their community as entrepreneurial and innovative, and not at all like those lazy bludgers getting rich on Newstart.

No census can or will change this entrenched inequality, whether people in TA are counted or not.

For the 2011 rough sleepers count, the ABS consulted widely and recruited the supervisors from the social housing sector. The training was better than the consultation but both were predictably paternalistic. It seems it is virtually impossible for white middle class professionals to not reproduce unrealistic, ill-informed assumptions and stereotypes about the population with whom they work — yet it is the homeless who keep them in a job and their mortgages paid.

Some of those assumptions were around trust in authority. It is a familiar line — homeless people, or Aboriginal people, or young people, lack trust in authority. This is presented as some kind of deficit in the individual member of this or that community.

But the most cursory glance at the facts reveals that people who do not trust authority have reached an evidence-based conclusion: authority has, does and will treat them badly. Violently. Brutally. Ignore their human rights. Deny their humanity. Be condescending and paternalistic, and judgmental.

All of these are horrible experiences and all are meted out, often, by government employees such as police, or government-funded employees, such as job agency staff.

So a mistrust of authority is a product of authority being oppressive — yet in the great Australian tradition, this mistrust is framed as a deficit in members of the community to which government, historically and contemporaneously, has actively caused harm, usually under the guise of providing help.

The ABS had developed a two-tiered message for the homelessness count. The first was trust us, we are trustworthy. The second was the data will assist government to make better policy which will benefit the homeless population.

Fast forward to 2016 and the rules have changed but the message is the same as that which informed our training for the homelessness count.

Using the same message for a different set of circumstances is lazy and complacent at best. At worst, it reeks of misleading the public: if there is a case to be made for the changes, why not make it? Why fall back on exactly the same message designed to engender a trust relationship with homeless people five years earlier?

Like all good tweeps, I put out a Twitter poll: 'Do you trust the government?' There were two yes votes (n = 254). One person tweeted me to say she accidentally tapped yes. Either way, the yes vote was basically a margin of error. (No, I am not going to insult readers by spelling out the unscientific nature of a Twitter poll.)

Ironically, the failure to make the case for retaining names and addresses for a longer period is eroding trust in the ABS because the argument is so weak and the government so mistrusted.

The "better policy" argument is specious for political expediency reasons already mentioned. The gap between the data collection and analysis and actual policy decisions, which are based on neoliberal ideology and electoral chancing, is huge. In addition, people most likely to not be counted are the people most likely to need government services to survive. Not government money in the form of research grants, public service jobs, immediate tax write-downs and public housing guests, but actual resources to feed and clothe and house themselves in a wealthy society.

Yet the line about better directing government policy based on census data is widely accepted — by people who do not rely on government services. The academics and bureaucrats pushing this line are not grounding it in evidence of better homelessness services, or identifiable improvements in the lives of welfare recipients. They are not doing this because the evidence is not there.

So, like the trust argument acting to erode trust, the evidence-for-better-policy argument fails to point to evidence of better policy outcomes derived from the previous census.

Meanwhile, the evidence of a benefit to the academic or bureaucrat is there for all to see: there they are on the telly, with their job and media platform, well remunerated and recognised, as an expert in data capture and analysis.

Leaving aside identifiable groups of academics and bureaucrats, is the census beneficial to homeless people? Unemployed people? Sole parents, carers, people with disabilities?

Are any of these groups better off than in 2011 because their status was counted and analysed by the ABS and other social scientists?

Why not ask them? I could easily find people who were counted as homeless in 2011. Pay me and I’ll let you know if any are better off and, if so, how many. The government has moved many Centrelink recipients on to cashless welfare this year. Why not ask Alan Tudge if this policy is linked to census data? Ask people on the BasicsCard what they think of the alleged link between their census form and having access to only 20 per cent of their payment in cash?

Media, social media and clickbait

And then there are the privileged and their cheer squads who say,

Conspiracy theorists, shut up! Who cares? What a joke, lol. If you’ve got nothing to hide whaddaya fraid of? Why not be an elite like me spreading my disdain for intelligent, informed critique of the census?

The worst bit is when these people pretend that their deeply conservative line, which conforms 100 per cent to the government line, is somehow edgy and real. Agreeing with government and name-calling dissenters is not edgy. It is a well-documented standard practice of conservative white patriarchy, the tradition from which you massively benefit and proudly reproduce while posturing as some kind of "hip n rad" guy.

These are people who have never missed a meal in their life. Who have not lived in a car while trying to keep their children in school. Who are too wilfully ignorant to grasp the depths of their ignorance. Who know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the deliberately oppressive and humiliating systems imposed on public housing applicants and Centrelink recipients and prisoners.

But their view is so ingrained, so casually and callously normalised, that others fall into line and even sell their testimony to prop up the lies and hate.

You know the kind of thing:

I was homeless once and I got back on my feet. I will ignore the fact that being white, or being a man, or not having a mental illness, or not having dependents, means it was far far easier for me than all these other people who are just lazy or drunks or – this is an actual claim – choose to be homeless.

No, thank you

The ABS asked me back this year. I turned the offer down, providing detailed reasons and requesting that these reasons go on the record. My work in 2011 was extremely highly regarded. Our team was seen as an exemplar of thoroughness and accuracy. The team of five comprised three Aboriginal women and two white women. We included one young person (22) and four mothers. Of course, we were thorough and accurate. We were careful and respectful and professional — and trusted by the target population.

And while I passed on the offer and let the 2011 team know that the work was available, not one of us wanted to go out there again under the new rules. There was nothing to found any trust in the process. Some individuals may have improved circumstances but, by and large, homelessness services have been trashed by the Baird Government. Some families may have been allocated a house but meanwhile, domestic violence services have all but disappeared into large non-specialist corporate religion.

These sorts of decisions are not driven by accuracy of data capture and robust policy development. These sorts of policies – cashless welfare, mainstreaming women’s services – deliberately negatively impact the poorest people in our community. And anyone who claims that Coalition Government decisions give more weight to census data than religion, ideology, internal power games and political expedience is:

  1. not paying attention;
  2. lying;
  3. entirely self-interested;
  4. an attention-seeking tosser; or
  5. all of the above.

You can follow Ingrid Matthews on Twitter @Imusing.

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