The Turnbull government's handling of the Census shows it learned nothing from 'Mediscare'

Stand up and be counted: Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Anne Cusack/Getty Images

It was only a month ago, as the Turnbull government struggled to return to power, that Coalition MPs howled at the moon about the damage the Labor party had done to the re-election chances because of “Mediscare”.

Most people, in response to that sort of trauma, go into a hyper-vigilance that has them ready to pounce on any perceived threat, which is why the silence from the government in the wake of the growing backlash against tonight’s Census is all the more remarkable.

Just a few weeks after being blindsided by a scare campaign, Turnbull and his ministers have let it happen again. Without saying a word.

Labor MP Andrew Leigh says he can’t find any record of Kelly O’Dwyer or Alex Hawke having “uttered a peep” about the biggest cause for concern – the shift to retaining your name and address for four years, rather than 18 months. A gangrenous concern has subsequently spread through the community and now a number of MPs are in open rebellion, saying they won’t be giving their name tonight as they fill out the census.

How on earth did Malcolm Turnbull let it come to this for the second month in a row? For a prime minister who trumpets the era of data, innovation and technology, prosecuting the case should have been core business, yet he’s been silent on the issue, leaving the field open to paranoia and growing fears about privacy that, on face value, appear irrational in the era of Big Data, metadata retention and Facebook.

And the problem was made worse yesterday when the minister responsible, Nationals MP Michael McCormack, tried to dismiss the concerns of the Australian population as “much ado about nothing”.

McCormack should remember that in borrowing that quote from Shakespeare’s play, it was about someone tricked into believing that the person they trusted most had been unfaithful.

Today Business Insider published the views of Leigh, and technology expert Preeti Bajaj , who both emphasise the importance of the data the Census collects in planning a better and brighter future for the country.

Even independent senator David Leyonhjhelm, a “libertarian” with an inherent distrust of Big Government, says he’ll be putting his name on his census paper tonight, so it’s not unreasonable to expect Australians with more moderate views to do the same.

But the fact that a century of uncontroversial data collection by the otherwise trusted Australian Bureau of Statistics has now turned into a Big Brother invasion of privacy is a massive failure of leadership by the newly re-elected PM and his government.

Instead of Shakespeare, McCormack and Turnbull should perhaps turn to another comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “To lose one argument may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

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