Taxation is Civilisation

Taxation is civilisation

A favourite phrase of an economics teacher I once had at school.  

There has been considerable “column inches” [yes, also a dated phrase] written about the recent and still very raw failure of the Australian Census Website. It is worth noting that this is perhaps the first Census in the nation’s history that “failed-to-fly” on the designated day. This is not an insignificant event,  yet regardless of the political debates and recriminations [that will surely and perhaps rightly] come, the bigger picture is what this represents.

In essence, arguably the most important and relied upon institution for the function of government, the protection of the common weal and delivery of sound public policy, assuming one wishes to rely on evidence-based-decision-making, appears to have demonstrated over the last few years, in increasingly obvious and more widespread ways, that it may no longer be fit-for-purpose.

The work of the ABS extends to every jurisdiction, business and community domain.

It was only in 2014-15 that questions were raised about the quality and accuracy of the ABS Labour-Force figures due to budget cuts and ageing technology. During 2014, the ABS was ridiculed by some analysts and commentators because a claim of a record 121,000 jobs created in August 2014 was accompanied with a ZERO increase in hours worked. following changes in survey methods we also experienced wildly fluctuating and out-of-series results.  All creating doubt and loss of confidence, where once there was not.

This is not to say the ABS should be subjected to a typical “root-and-branch” review/reform, [yes the young advisors love that term], rather, I am suggesting we start by fixing what is broken.

Firstly, the “strategic” policy position.

A public service. By definition, a public service, serves the public [ yes I understand the Westminster definition], by ensuring government policy and programme outputs occur. 

Ratios of Australian public service average staffing levels compared to Australia’s forecast population between 2007 and 2015 shows us this:


APS Ratios
[Source: Aust Federal Budget 2014 ]


The concept of “productivity” savings or dividends, have a finite life. One cannot simply invoke an unending ideological position ” good government is small government” without a subsequent series of inflection points being reached. Two things occur:  

1. Stuff breaks  

2. The goose that lays the eggs eventually dies. i.e “Productivity” no longer exists.

This is not about simple COST. This is about the RATIO of public servants to the population.  Yes, I understand technological innovation and automation. My point remains.

Secondly, the “tactical” position.

Cost. Consider the place of the Australian Bureau of Statistics within the Treasury Portfolio and within the wider Australian Federal Budget.

Budget papers show an INCREASED budget from 2015-16 [Census]  of $483,881m to $ 597,056m in the Census year. But…


Budget 2016-17
[ Source: Aust. Budget Papers ]


The outer years of the budget show the Australian Bureau of Statistics fall below 2015 figures. The outer years to 2020 look like this.

  • 2015-16 = $483,881m
  • 2016-17 = $597,056m
  • 2017-18 = $398,472m
  • 2019-20 =$411,778


ABS funding 2015-2020
[ Budget papers 2016-17 ]


A civil society is built on the integrity and competence of its core institutions. The challenges of a modern, globalised world require policy responses that are evidence driven, timely and nuanced. Requiring context and detail in ways that have never been required [or possible] before.

These two simple trends impacting on the resourcing and operation of the Australian Bureau of Statistics appears to challenge the very notion my old economics teacher left me with.

Taxation is civilisation. 

The alternative?



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