In 14AD, the Roman Emperor Tiberius, an unlovable man who succeeded the far superior Augustus, successfully managed a census of Rome (you might remember it from the Gospels). Thousands of years later, the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – a woman who had more than her fair share of bungles – managed to organise a successful census in 2011. In fact, the only nation on God’s green earth to stuff up a census in the past 20 years is the Democratic Republic of Congo but they’ve been a bit preoccupied with bloody and ghastly civil war.
But who knew that even a census – perhaps one of the simplest and most elementary acts that any government must perform – could fall foul of Malcolm Turnbull?
Whenever the Prime Minister comes on television these days, it’s hard not to scream for his resignation, no matter what he’s done. Deep down, such impulses are acts of kindness because he looks like he’s going to burst into tears at any moment. Ever since he retained office but lost all power on July 2, Turnbull has lurched from one cock-up to the next. From the unworkable Senate to the Kevin Rudd for UN Secretary General disaster (who could have guessed Kevin Rudd would leap into a damaging public tirade if you didn’t give him what he wanted?).
But the #CensusFail really takes the cake. Turnbull has proved to be the worst political tactician in modern memory ever to occupy the Lodge and now he’s demonstrating he can’t handle the very mechanics of government.
And it’s particularly painful for the PM as the failure of an online census is a dagger in the heart of his fundamental vision for the future of Australian government.
Malcolm hasn’t really teased out much of a vision for anything in particular but he has made it clear how passionate he is about streamlining and digitising the public service. A noble crusade, you’d think, considering most of our senior public servants are using PCs with all the horsepower of a two-dollar calculator. But dragging the entire public service into the 21st century does involve attention and money, something the Liberal Government hasn’t exhibited a great deal of.
We have a budget deficit and we need to make savings, we all know that. But since this government isn’t really committed to lowering the deficit anyway, they might as well target their cuts a bit better to ensure our government can do the essential work of censuses and service deliveries and the like. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has been through hell and back with cuts – including not even having a Chief Statistician for twelve long months – and it’s no surprise it wasn’t strong enough for this task. One of the best things Tony Abbott did was to restore the health of a cash-starved Aussie military. Turnbull should have the courage after this to try and build an effective (not a gargantuan) civil service which can actually provide services. But then that would involve finding money in places we don’t like such as middle class welfare payments and the states paying their way, I suppose.
And the revolving door known as the Turnbull ministry hasn’t helped much. The census has been under the so-called care of nearly five ministers. Poor old Michael McCormack had only been in charge for three weeks and yet he’s getting all the blame. His post-census press conference was a disaster but you can’t help but feel sorry for him. And why is Kelly O’Dwyer (who’d been in charge of the census for months before) subject to no scrutiny at all? Probably because she’s under enough pressure for the mess she and others have made of superannuation – if it wasn’t for that perilous one seat House majority, she would be up for demotion.
The public relations job pre-census was ineffectual. The jump from the ABS’s public line of ‘Do the census or we’ll kill your first born’ to ‘Do it please, we beg you, we’ll do anything’ was headache-inducing. They even lacked any good line against the libertarians who were all over Twitter telling people the census was just an excuse to hoover up data which either Xi Jinping or Hillary Clinton would use later to destroy Australia.
You could hardly be surprised the government couldn’t come up with a decent spin post-census. We heard it was the Chinese before the Minister for Adelaide, Christopher Pyne, popped up saying it was an Aussie wot done it. And then there was Michael McCormack saying it wasn’t an attack despite the ABS having said it was an attack in four separate tweets. This government can’t – or more probably won’t, given the divisions – sing from the same hymn sheet. It has been the Coalition’s biggest tactical failing ever since they were elected in 2013, and they’re no closer to solving it.
As for Malcolm tweeting that he and Lucy had just done their census minutes before it crashed, well, that’s just a bit unlucky. But he should resign anyway.
Of course, the computer failure would come as no surprise to anyone who has used online government services. From Centrelink to Medicare, government online is almost impossible to navigate and always liable to crash. The failure to anticipate this or the sheer weight of the cyber-attack shows once again how an under-staffed and under-prepared ABS was asking for it.
Everyone shares some of the blame here, but Malcolm Turnbull is the head of the government of this country. He is responsible for its failings and you don’t have to go far to find a failing these days. The census-fail represents both his basic incompetence and the window closing on any hope of a Turnbull legacy. This prime minister cannot afford any more mistakes and he needs a win desperately. Maybe the gods will pity him and get the Australian Building and Corruption Commission past the joint sitting. One who thinks that ‘the party couldn’t possibly move against him’ should look to history and think again.
Perhaps Turnbull could call Julia Gillard for advice – maybe offer her a gig at the UN – or try to summon the ghost of the Emperor Tiberius.
Both were rubbish rulers, but at least they could pull off a bloody census.
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