Address to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Centenary Celebration, Canberra

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National Accounts – September Quarter
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December 13, 2005
National Accounts – September Quarter
December 7, 2005
Productivity Commission to examine water markets and externalities
December 13, 2005

Address to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Centenary Celebration, Canberra





Thank you Laurie. Parliamentary Secretary, Chris Pearce, Australian Statistician, Dennis Trewin, distinguished guests, ABS staff in Canberra and Interstate who are watching on the computer network, ladies and gentlemen:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has come through its first century with flying colours. Take care during the next Australia will be watching your work as closely as ever. Because what the ABS does really matters to all Australians.

The ABS has charted Australia’s progress practically since Federation, jealously guarding its independence. At times the ABS has poured the cold water of reality on inflated claims. Always it has been the calm voice of reason. And when I tell you today that Australia is in great shape, I have your own figures to back me up.

The ABS has enabled us all to take a good look at ourselves through the ABS lens, free of any flattering rosy glow, or any warm fuzzy blur hiding the flaws. The ABS has been throwing the spotlight on different aspects of our national life, showing us what and where we are today, how we arrived here, and helping us decide where to go in the future.

The role of the ABS is very important. It was in recognition of this, that the Government agreed in the last budget to increase the funding available to the ABS to ensure that Australia continues to have a high quality national statistical service.

There are plenty of wry quotes about statistics, about their use, their abuse and their connection to the truth. I won’t go into those. What I will say is that it is the skilled collection and intelligent, independent analysis of statistics that has made ABS and its professional statisticians such a valuable part of our society, contributing to the building of our nation through informed decision-making. In their hands mere statistics take on the bright hard shine of truth.

In times past, statisticians have also saved lives. During the Crimean war, in one of history’s little know chapters, Florence Nightingale the lady with the lamp collected data on mortality rates and pioneered a new statistical analysis called the “polar area diagram” to plot the incidence of preventable deaths.

Her charts and graphs showed that improving sanitary methods saved lives. Her calculations proved to be true because as soon as her sanitary reforms were implemented the mortality rate dropped. In 1856 Florence Nightingale was made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Here in Australia, Oliver Lancaster, inspired by earlier research by Sir Norman McAllister Gregg during World War II, investigated the national Census results from 1911, 1921 and 1933. In a world first, Lancaster found a definite link between rubella and congenital problems for unborn children.

The ABS, originally known as the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, came into being 100 years ago today, on the eighth of December 1905, when the Census and Statistics Act was given assent. But it had its beginnings in the constitution that the visionary founding fathers brought into being before Federation. They recognised that statistics were going to be important to the new nation and set up legislative arrangements that have stood the test of time.

Today, the ABS has a vast storehouse of statistics, a veritable time machine through which we can gain an insight into the changes that have taken place in Australia since that time.

Australia’s population in 1905 was 4 million. ABS has estimated that some 4,000 of those people were still alive in 2005. In their lifetime our population has grown to more than 20 million.

Around 1905 the average weekly wage for an adult male was the equivalent of $4.35 for a working week of almost 50 hours. Adjusted for inflation, this translates into around $217.00 in today’s money. By contrast, the May 2005 average weekly wage was $1,008.00 for around 37 hours. So real wages have increased substantially.

Our families have also changed a lot. Bureau demographers estimate that in 1905, each woman of child-bearing age (15-45 years) gave birth to four children. This compares with just under 1.8 children in 2004. This decline, combined with increasing longevity, are the basic causes of our ageing population and the policy dilemmas it poses. Recent indications are that this historical decline may have halted. But only future statistics will tell for sure, and if so, by how much.

The authors of the 1908 Year Book, covering the period from 1901 to 1907, observed that Australians were not a wine-drinking people, and that the new wines in Australia found it difficult to establish a footing in the markets of the “old world”. When we look at today’s large and growing consumption of Australian wine around the globe, we know we have come a long way.

International trade is another area where ABS has recorded great changes over the century. In 1905 Australia’s primary trading partner was the United Kingdom, and trade with the UK was more than five times that with the second largest trading partner, the United States. Today the members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, are the principal focus of our trade, and the UK ranks sixth.

Throughout its history ABS has been responsible for many important advances in the gathering, analysis and dissemination of statistics. Notable among these was the Bureau’s practical federalism, in working towards and eventually achieving the integration of the various state statistical agencies into the then Commonwealth Bureau. Today, through its system of state offices, ABS is closely in touch with the circumstances, the endeavours and the statistical needs of Governments and Australians throughout the continent.

Another key achievement has been the running of the Census throughout the century, involving us all in taking stock of ourselves. The Bureau also did pioneering work in national computer networking in the 1960s, and ABS continues to play a leading role in the use of information technology in the public sector. The development of survey methodology in Australia is another major achievement in which the Bureau made a vital contribution and allowed us to considerably increase the amount of available statistical information.

In 2005 ABS, through its collections and its publications, both print and electronic, provides us with a picture of our nation that is breathtaking in its scope, but is readily accessible to all Australians. Whether it is the ongoing monitoring and forecasting of our population growth, or the maintenance of our national accounts, or any of the dozens of principal collections on which we rely, the key information is available to all through their home or office computer, or through their local library.

Throughout the last 100 years ABS has been true to its values. It has achieved a consistently high level of integrity, professionalism, relevance, and confidentiality.

From its earliest decades the Bureau has maintained an international reputation for statistical innovation, reliability and integrity. Above all, it has earned and honoured the trust of those who provide it with information and of those who rely on its statistics.

That remarkable record is due in no small way to the individual Commonwealth and Australian Statisticians who have led the ABS, the staff who supported them, and those who continue to provide that support today. I would like to recognise the presence here today, and the contributions they have made, of former Australian Statisticians Bill McLennan and Ian Castles. I’m also very pleased that Pat McMahon, aged 90, from Sydney, is here at this function. Pat is the oldest ABS interviewer. Although he will retire shortly, he is a wonderful example of the dedication to service that has helped make the ABS a great organisation.

The ABS Corporate Plan, released earlier this week, provides a road map for this vital team effort, maintaining a top quality national statistical agency into the second ABS century.

But thanks are also due to the people and businesses of Australia, who contribute directly to ABS outcomes through their participation in the many statistical surveys conducted every year, and in particular to all the Australian households and their members who participate in the Census. You provide a major contribution to Australia having a reliable national statistical service.

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.

On 8 August next year ABS will conduct the 15th Census of Population and Housing. I urge everyone in the community to get behind that event. There will be a number of new features, including offering the first eCensus in Australia. No doubt you will hear more about the Census in the coming months.

In June this year I was happy to announce that, as a result of a May 2005 Budget initiative and consistent with the Government’s policy of Backing Australia’s Ability, many ABS publications would be available free of charge from the Internet. These publications previously cost between 20 and 40 dollars each.

Today, as a tribute to the people of Australia, and to enable them easier access to information about our country, and in celebration of the ABS Centenary, I have great pleasure in announcing that as from next Monday morning, ALL the statistical information published online by the ABS will be available free of charge. This means that electronic versions of all ABS publications, and all Census data, time series data and spreadsheets may be downloaded from the ABS web site, absolutely free.

In conclusion, I confirm my Government’s commitment to ensuring that the mandate of an independent Australian Bureau of Statistics, to deliver and lead statistical services in Australia without fear or favour, will continue far into our future.

Thank you.