Bureau of statistics an independent body and only parliament can sack its chief

← Homepage



MALCOLM Turnbull wants heads to roll after last week’s Census shemozzle, but he might not be able to wield the axe himself.

The Prime Minister might need the assistance of Labor, but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has already nominated Mr Turnbull as a bungler of the first order.

The problem for the government could come should Australias chief statistician, David Kalisch, appointed in December 2014, be criticised in its review of the census controversy.

Mr Kalisch is the $700,000-a-year head of an independent statutory body and only a vote of Parliament can get rid of him.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is not a department where the person in charge operates at the pleasure of the minister and the Prime Minister.

It has a protected status as does, for example, the Australian Electoral Commission so it can do its work without fear the government will interfere.

That status is one reason why the Abbott government could not sack Australian Human Rights Commission head Gillian Triggs, with whom it was unhappy last year. It could only request her to quit and Ms Triggs declined and still has the job.

There is no evidence Mr Kalisch will be held to account for the census muck-up but, if that is the finding of a review, the Prime Minister would need the support of Labor and the Greens to get a dismissal through Parliament.

No government minister has said Mr Kalisch will be blamed.

I know people have asked, will heads roll? Which heads roll, where and when will be determined once the review is complete, Mr Turnbull said last week.

The difference between an independent body and the government is that the statutory agency can make recommendations, but only a government can implement them.

So long as these bodies do not exceed their legislative authority, it is the job of the other arms of government, and particularly the executive, to respect their processes, University of Sydney social policy professor Danielle Celermajer wrote in The Conversation in February last year.

This does not mean elected governments have to agree with their findings or implement their recommendations.

This distribution of power between the statutory authority, which is charged with making assessments of what the law requires, and the Parliament, with the mandate of passing laws or changing policy, is a central part of the apparatus of democracy.