For my loyal readers outside Australia – hello Honoria, Victoria and John – in case the Olympic runners with the message stick haven’t reached you yet, we’ve just had a census here. And, I am mightily pleased to say, what a right royal cock-up it was.
Or rather “is”, because the damned thing won’t be over until 23 September, by which time most of the populace of the Land Down Under will have forgotten about it. Attention will have turned to the Grand Finals of the winter football codes and the start of the Spring Racing Carnival, the Melbourne Cup and a whole lot of other things far more important than meeting the requirements of Canberra bureaucrats.
For the benefit of Honoria, Victoria and John, let me state as quickly as I can what happened. Tuesday, 9 August 2016, was designated census day. Every household, hotel guest and prisoner was compelled, by law, with huge fines for not doing so, to fill in an electronic form with lots of information the Federal Government wanted to know and file it with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The system failed and the ABS shut it down. A large number of Australians, faithfully recording intimate details for bureaucratic benefit, found themselves and their confidential information blanked in some kind of cyber limbo. Millions of others were locked out altogether. It took two days to get everything up and running again. The only people who had any joy at all were those who got in before the crash – PM Malcolm Turnbull among them, beaming in his usual smug manner – and the troglodytes who insisted on doing the census on paper.
What a massively wonderful debacle – census disabled barely after having been started, officialdom spinning yarns about phantom cyber attacks, an embarrassed and then angry PM impotently thrashing about looking for someone to blame and, best of all, a dataset totally compromised. This was the first time the census was to have been taken on the web. Who knew that the millions of Australians being censused would all try to use the system all at once? And that the whole system could be blocked as easily as a dunny in a dodgy diner?
(It reminded me of the days of computer conversions 30-plus years ago in the newspaper industry. The management gurus reckoned we could share terminals by distributing the workload across the day. Who knew that news was supposed to be new? The personal computer revolution eventually saved us from that bit of folly . . . at least until the internet came along. But that’s another story.)
I love it when Big Government stuffs up. Every now and then the politicians and the pen-pushers need to be reminded that power does have limits.
Look at the most famous census ever taken – by a chap rejoicing in the name Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He was the new governor of an outpost of the Roman Empire and he decided he needed to know how many people he had under his control for, of course, tax purposes. Or, depending which Wikipedia entry you read, the Emperor ordered everyone in the realm to be registered. Either way, because of the complete absence of electronic abacuses in those days, people had to line up where they came from so they could be counted manually.
One story goes that a carpenter chap stuck his heavily pregnant wife on a donkey and plodded back to his home town, where they could find no room at the inn and had to bed down in a lowly cattle shed, where in the course of not much time at all, probably as a result of all that jolting around on the donkey, one silent night she gave birth to a little child and put him away in a manger.
To quote that quintessential Aussie bureaucrat, Sir Les Patterson: “Are you with me?”
Two thousand and sixteen years later we’re still feeling the effects of Quirinius’s census. Or maybe not, because – and this is the best part – the story is most probably not true. It’s likely the product of a bit of spin St Luke put on the story of the Nativity. His fellow gospellers don’t mention the census at all in their versions, and for good reason. Quirinius conducted his census in 6CE (once upon a time, AD*) and, according to highly respected authorities – i.e. Sts Matthew, Mark, John and even Luke himself – Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod of Judea, who had died 10 years earlier.
Kind chroniclers these days say simply that Luke made a mistake. Others reckon he was trying to make certain that Jesus would be seen as a scion of the House of David, and that meant he had to find a reason for Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth travelling to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Jews’ heroic King David, and having Jesus born there.
Whatever the case, it is an established fact that the good citizens of Judea in 6CE were not at all happy with Quirinius’s census and rebelled. According to a contemporary account, a fellow with a prescient name, Judas, but of Gamala, “became zealous”, claiming inter alia that “this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery”. The resultant Zealot movement led to a series of wars, which over time “brought the public to destruction”.
Who knows what Malcolm’s census of 2016 will bring? I suspect, however, it might be the last time this generation of bureaucrats tries to coerce the entire population to enter the means of their own oppression into Big Brother’s database – where they were on that particular night (Bethlehem?); where they came from (Nazareth, perhaps); what they did for a living (carpenter?) and indeed what their employers did; how much they earned; whether they were circumcised (religion); whether they were virgins (parents); and so on and so fifth.
Already, many people who found themselves unable on census night to “do their bit for Australia”, as we were exhorted in a set of oily and presumptuous TV ads, have decided not to bother with it any more. As one wag of my acquaintance put it, this might be the first census in which the population of Australia actually falls.
Some census filler-outers found they could complete the form, submit it and get a receipt for doing so before the appointed night. This rather subtracted from the intention of gaining a snapshot of Australia at a point in time. One of my friends did this and then two days later discovered he was having his grandchildren stay over on census night. Sensibly his family ignored the discrepancy, and I suspect his wasn’t the only one.
Other put-upon Australians, deciding the questionnaire was too impertinent for words or maybe just fed-up with the daily experience of bureaucrats being unable to run a bath, have inserted in the form a certain amount of mendacity, infelicity or terminological inexactitude. Or, to put it another way, lies.
My old mate P.G. Wodehouse is again able to put the right perspective on this kind of behaviour. It’s akin to what he and his fellow 800 internees did to their guards when bunged into the tender care of their friendly neighbourhood Nazis in 1940. Here’s how the ever co-operative German Foreign Office let him tell the tale in his infamous, and unbelievably ill-judged, broadcasts from Berlin† (in severely truncated part):
“Parades . . . would start with the Sergeant telling us to form fives. This order having been passed along the line by the linguists who understood German, we would nod intelligently and form fours, then threes, then sixes. And when eventually, just in time to save the Sergeant from having a nervous breakdown, we managed to get into fives, was this the end? No, sir. It was not an end, but a beginning. What happened then was that Old Bill in Row Forty-Two would catch sight of Old George in Row Twenty-Three and shuffle across to have a chat with him . . .
“Presently, Old Bill, having heard all Old George has to say about the European situation, decides to shuffle back – only to find that his place has been filled up, like a hole by the tide. This puzzles him for a moment, but he soon sees what to do. He forms up as the seventh man of a row, just behind Old Percy, who has been chatting with Old Fred and has just come back and lined up as Number Six.”
And so it goes: paragraph upon paragraph describing the fun of fairly fluid assembly. A sergeant, a corporal, and a French soldier interpreter do a count and come up one short. Eventually the missing man turns up and, because everybody has broken ranks, there has to be another count. Six short. Various suggestions are made and now the prisoners are ordered to their dormitories for the room wardens to do their own count. Then back on parade. Still five short, still much milling about – “For Old Bill has once more strolled off to Old George and has got into an argument with him about whether yesterday’s coffee tasted more strongly of gasoline than today’s. Bill thinks Yes – George isn’t so sure.”
Then someone remembers the men in the hospital – “These prove to be five in number, and we are dismissed. We have spent a pleasant and instructive fifty minutes, and learned much about our fellow men.”
This is the likely fate of the Great 2016 Australian Census. I fear, though, that once the sergeant, the corporal and the interpreter calm down they will realise that all the information sought by the census is already sitting in the Government’s Dropbox, or the equivalent, and all they have to do is get the Tax Office, Medicare, the Immigration Department and the various social security agencies to talk to one another and bingo! that’s it.
Of course, because of Orwell’s dystopia, Australians long ago warned their lords and masters that this was not to happen: there must be no single database, no resultant ID cards and no O’Brien to reassure us that two and two could make five. The price is these five-yearly farces and a bureaucracy that pretends to respect our privacy but in fact uses the privacy laws to conceal and confront. Let’s not get into the issue of metadata, nor what Messrs Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Co. know about us. I don’t want to go down that path – that’s a road heavily travelled by others, and you don’t need it from me. What do I know about it anyway?
But I will venture on to a road less travelled with this: the census was a happy disaster. Government claims it needs the census information so it can plan better for our future benefit. Garbage. A million examples of central government planning surround us and they all tell us we’re only one shoe away from the Soviet plan which resulted in bags full of left shoes but no rights. And what else is Brexit but a revolt against the central planners, the hommes, the herren, the dames and the damen who put the kibosh on the British sausage and limited the bend in the banana?
Bureaucrats just like them everywhere are busy dismantling civilisation in a vain attempt to regulate the climate. I can’t wait for the lights to start going out. That will be another happy disaster.
*I don’t know when exactly AD began to be supplanted by CE. It just kind of crept up, so much so that now when you look it up via Dr Google or some such you get this kind of explanation: “Common Era (CE) is the calendar system commonly (my italics) used in the Western world for the year number part of a date. The year numbers are the same as those used for Anno Domini (AD); in both systems the current year is 2016. Common Era is also known as Current Era and Christian Era. Before Common Era (BCE) is the system for the years before the Common Era. BCE uses the same numbering as BC or Before Christ.” Is it just me, or is there something about the tone of this explanation that strikes you as odd? Apologetic maybe?
†This episode is related in the third of Wodehouse’s five broadcasts at the behest of the German Foreign Office. Taken out of the war context they are amusing, typical Wodehouse pieces and not at all propaganda. The full transcripts can be found in a number of places on the web. But if you go to the site of the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) you’ll be entertained as well as informed.