Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer
26 October 2004 - 3 December 2007
Opening of the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute
Sydney Convention Centre
Tuesday 5 April 2005
It is a great pleasure to welcome such an eminent gathering of professional statisticians to Australia for the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute.
I note that this is the second time Australia has hosted the ISI Session, which was last held here in 1967. I think it’s fair to say that in the intervening 38 years there have been many important changes in Australian society and in Australia’s economy and infrastructure. Indeed we can prove it — thanks to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
And we can plan for future changes confident that our decisions will be based on statistical enumerations, calculations and projections that meet the highest international standards.
The International Statistical Institute and its members have played an important role in establishing and maintaining those standards, and I am pleased to note that the ABS is a long-standing active participant in the ISI’s activities and deliberations.
It is especially fitting that Australia is hosting this 2005 ISI Session, because this year we celebrate the Centenary of the ABS. The Australian Census and Statistics Act became law on 8 December 1905, bringing into being the predecessor of today’s ABS, the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics.
Of course, by that time the ISI had been in existence for 20 years. Other significant creations of your founding year, 1885, were Karl Benz’s prototype of the automobile and the patent for Gottlieb Daimler’s gasoline engine.
On a similar technological note, the founding of ABS’s predecessor organisation in 1905 closely followed the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 and occurred around the time of the development of Fleming’s and de Forest’s crucial electronic developments. And where would we be today without electronics?
Statisticians around the world were among the first to embrace electronic communications and associated new technology. What difference it has made to their work? It has certainly enabled them to collect and process large volumes of data far more effectively.
Furthermore, it has massively increased the number and types of analysis that are possible. Importantly it also enabled a much wider range of access methods for statistical information. The availability of information through the internet is the most obvious example.
Citizens mostly learn of new national statistical releases through their newspapers or via radio, television or the Internet. As with other national statistical offices, the ABS represents a vast warehouse of knowledge on Australians, our society and our endeavours.
This information provides a mirror on society. It enables us to have a good look at ourselves, statistically speaking. If we don't like what we see, we have the opportunity to apply treatments, often in the way of policy interventions, to improve the image we see.
I would now like to tell you a little about Australia. Thanks to ABS, Australians know that we now number more than 20 million, having passed that milestone on 4 December 2003.
Through the miracle of the Internet, we can visit the Population Clock on the ABS web site and virtually watch the population grow — at the rate of one birth every 2 minutes and 4 seconds, one death every 3 minutes and 55 seconds, and a net gain of one international migrant every 4 minutes and 9 seconds.
If we’re game, we can also watch the age and sex make-up of our population graphically change from the past into the future on that web site, on an animated population pyramid. It shows our population ageing, highlighting one of the policy challenges my government is addressing.
ABS tells us Australia’s population is ageing because of sustained low fertility and increased life expectancy. The proportion of people over 65 increased from 10 per cent to 13 per cent from 1983–2003 and will increase further into the future.
Our statistics also show that immigration is still very important to Australia. Settlers are arriving from more diverse regions of the world today than in the past.
Arrivals of those born in China, India and South Africa are up from a decade ago. In 2002-03, of our skilled migrant intake, which makes up 41 per cent of permanent arrivals, 26 per cent came from Europe, 20 per cent from South-East Asia, 16 per cent from Southern Asia and 15 per cent from North-East Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa contributed 14 per cent.
Australians born overseas make up 22 per cent of the population, and 26 per cent of people born in Australia have at least one parent who was born overseas. Of those born overseas, 43 per cent were born in one of four countries: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy and Vietnam.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 2.2 per cent of Australians. They are a younger population, with a median age of 20.5 years compared to 36.1 years for the non-Indigenous population.
Our statistics tell me that most Australians consider themselves to be in good health. Of Australians aged 15 years or over, 82 per cent report their health status as good, very good or excellent. Unfortunately, the health of our indigenous people is not as good as the health of other Australians. This is another of the policy areas that the government is working on.
Australia is known as a sporting nation. Statistics support this. More than 62 per cent of Australian adults participate as a player in one or more sports or physical activities, at least once a year. In addition to this, more than a quarter of us attend at least one popular music performance a year.
Almost one-in-five attend at least one opera or musical, and many of those performances were at that wonderful Opera House just around the harbour from here. Also about one third of us engage in voluntary work in a year. Volunteers were one of the main reasons the 2000 Sydney Olympics were successful.
Thanks to our statisticians we know that about 95 per cent of Australian households recycle waste. About 70 per cent of us own the homes we live in.
Australians are on the move. Half of all people aged between 15 and 24 years moved residence in the five years prior to the last census, which also revealed an increasing tendency for people to live near the coast. Nevertheless, our population is highly urbanised. Nearly 60 percent of Australians live in the five largest cities.
Those are just a few teasers from our statistical warehouse. There are many millions more numbers where they came from. If I have only whetted your appetite, you can get more by buttonholing an Aussie statistician — there are sure to be several somewhere near you right now.
National Statistical Offices can provide a vital resource to their governments and their communities but only if the statistics are treated seriously.
One quote I particularly like and one that I have used before is from one of our past Prime Ministers, Billy Hughes. He said: ‘There are only two people I trust — God and the Commonwealth Statistician.’ He also said he had the odd problem with God from time to time!
While our present-day government might take issue with Billy Hughes on many aspects of policy, he certainly expressed the reason why successive Australian governments over the last century have given their full support to the national statistical agency, regardless of their political persuasion. That reason has everything to do with that concept of trust.
As the present Australian Statistician, Dennis Trewin, told our National Press Club recently, Australia's robust democracy demands that the ABS be objective and publish without fear or favour.
Dennis went on to say the fact that this challenge has been met for 100 years is a credit to the wisdom of our political leaders over that century: to let the ABS get on with its job, and to provide it with the funds to evolve its collections and activity as the needs of our society change.
The historical record shows that there has never been any serious accusation of political partisanship against an Australian or Commonwealth Statistician. At the heart of that trust is the influence of core values on the way the ABS conducts itself.
These values, which have remained constant during the Bureau’s history, can be summed up as relevance, integrity, professionalism, equality of access to data, and protection of the confidentiality of information provided to the Bureau by both individuals and organisations.
In 2005, we can see clearly that the vision of 1905 has been fulfilled. The ABS can build on its record over the past 100 years to continue its contribution to informed decision-making, research and discussion, well into Australia’s future.
That is not to say that the ABS will not change. There must be change over time if the Bureau is to remain relevant and continue to serve the nation as well as it has done to date. But its key aim will be to preserve that trust that is so central to its effective role in our society.
Trust is important to governments as well. If statistics are trusted, discussions can focus on what the statistics mean for policy rather than on the integrity of the statistics themselves.
The French semiologist Jean Baudrillard is quoted as saying that statistics, like dreams, are a form of wish fulfilment. I don’t think he was giving statisticians a pat on the back, and indeed it often seems easier to find negative quotations about statistics than positive. But to turn this particular quotation on its head, it is fairly obvious that without access to well-founded statistics, mankind is unlikely to fulfil its collective dreams of a better world.
You statisticians give us the tools to take a hard look at ourselves, to see where we stand, how we arrived there, and to make informed decisions about how to proceed into the future.
This just doesn't apply to official statistics, although these are the focus of my remarks. There are many examples of where statistics and good statistical analysis have benefited mankind. Medical research is a prime example. To provide a local example, a well known Australian Statistician, H.O. Lancaster used a combination of Census data and medical records to show the link between birth defects and pregnant women being affected by German measles.
The Statistical Society of Australia has produced an excellent booklet in support of the statistical profession. It provides many examples — some sad and some amusing, but all thought provoking — of how soundly based statistics can save the day.
One story tells how a World War II research group, charged with improving the safety of allied air crew, decided to install extra armour plating on those parts of aircraft which were usually the most damaged by bullets or flak when they returned from sorties.
It took a statistician to point out that the extra armour should really go on the parts of the returning planes that were NOT damaged, because those were the parts where damage had most likely caused the loss of those planes which had not returned.
There can be no doubt that today governments, corporations and communities increasingly rely on data, not only to achieve their immediate aims, but often for their very survival. It is obvious that unless we have the skilled statisticians to provide quality data, and unless those statisticians are developing and maintaining the highest professional standards, the path into the future could be foggy indeed.
It now gives me great pleasure to officially open the 55th Session of the International Statistical Institute.
SOURCES OF REFERENCES IN SPEECH
Statistics: ABS Year Book 2005
From the Columbia Encyclopedia (6th edition, 2001):
1885 Karl Benz (1844–1929) produced the prototype of the automobile using an internal combustion motor operating on the Otto four-stroke cycle principle; the same year Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900) also patented his gasoline engine
1903 Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur (1867–1912) Wright made the first flight in a heavier-than-air craft on Dec. 17 at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
1904 John Ambrose Fleming (1849–1945) devised the diode thermionic valve (radio tube); Lee de Forest (1873–1961) invented the Audion (1906), a three-electrode vacuum tube (triode amplifier), thereby providing the basis for the development of electronics.
From The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996:
Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment.— Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), French semiologist. Cool Memories, ch. 4 (1987, trans. 1990).