Cleansing the past of inappropriate number crunching

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, November 12, 2013

KEEPING the internet clean for our kiddies was one of many promised improvements that the hapless Stephen Conroy failed to deliver.

In 2009, as minister for the digital economy, he announced that internet providers would be required to block unsuitable content.

Many said it could not be done, a view Conroy came to embrace over time, leading to the abandonment of the project last year.

It would be unfair to suggest that nothing was done during the Rudd and Gillard years to keep offence to a minimum for the casual googler, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics online archive does seem an odd place to start.

At the end of last year, ABS bureaucrats quietly inserted a disclaimer at the front of previous volumes of the Commonwealth Year Book warning that they might contain “language or views which … may be considered to be inappropriate or offensive today”.

The man responsible for the first 13 of these politically incorrect tomes was George Handley Knibbs, the commonwealth’s first official statistician, who began publishing the compendium in 1907.

It goes without saying that the explanations between the tables were written in the language of their day, but fair-minded readers will struggle to find cause for offence.

On the contrary; there is much that is delightfully inoffensive in the Knibbs editions compared with the obscenities published in recent ABS almanacs.

On page 785 of volume 6, for example, we learn that the commonwealth government spent an unobjectionable 3 pounds, 12 shillings and tuppence per head of population in 1907-08, the equivalent of about $450 today.

Last year’s edition reports that the tax contribution per person to the commonwealth government in 2009-10 was (warning: readers may find the following statistic inappropriate or offensive) $12,053.

Naturally, no one is blaming Brian Pink, the current Australian Statistician, for the decadent pursuits of big government catalogued in Year Book No 92.

Like Knibbs and others who have sat in his chair, Pink is not allowed to make stuff up: he has to work with the facts he has got.

We do not, for example, expect him to fudge the fact only 16 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in remote areas complete Year 12 or that 30 per cent of those in Year 7 fall below the national minimum standard for literacy.

Indeed, by recording these troubling statistics, Pink is performing an important service for this and future generations.

Uncomfortable as these facts may be, their presentation shames us into trying to do better.

Yet today’s intelligentsia, replete with moral vanity, presumes to impose its values not just on their own generation but on people who lived in different times.

Like the disturbing decision to remove the phrase “Known unto God” from the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier, thankfully now reversed, the disclaimer reflects the modern habit of casting aspersion on our ancestors.

The monotonous narrative of progressivism, framed as a journey of moral improvement from barbarism to civilisation, encourages us to take a dim view of our predecessors.

The presumed moral turpitude of former times is seen as evidence of present-day virtue.

Future generations may be appalled, however, to learn of the plight of indigenous Australians at the start of the 21st century.

The 2012 Year Book reports that three in 10 children had teeth and gum problems, 9 per cent had ear or hearing problems and 65 per cent had experienced serious stress in their lives in the previous year.

The decision to insert disclaimers in previous editions of the Year Book was made at departmental level and was implemented in December last year. There was no public consultation. It was not referred to the responsible minister.

An ABS spokesman said the decision was made by the National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics. “Some of the historical articles hold terminology that was appropriate (at) the time but offensive in today’s terms,” the spokesman said.

The language in the chapter on Aborigines in the 1910 Year Book may seem a little odd in parts. The authors, however, refuse to accept the argument, then gaining ground in European and US intellectual circles, that indigenous Australians are an inferior race.

“One must record definitely and emphatically that the Australian race is not a degraded one, physically, mentally or morally,” it says.

It argues with the assertion that Aboriginal children “come to a dead wall” at school and were “unable to count above two or four”.

“There is really no evidence for such assertions. The ordinary blackfellow is as good at figures as his white brother.

“Some become great in oratory and speak English chastely and beautifully. Some train themselves in music and can play classical choruses and such-like pieces on the organ with great skill and expression. Some show great mechanical ingenuity, and read and understand books on mechanics and physics.”

Whatever judgment we may be tempted to make of Knibbs’s work today, he did at least possess the humility to recognise he might be wrong.

The prissy, retro-fitted disclaimers that despoil historical documents are not just ugly but unnecessary.

Knibbs says in the preface that the material he presents “is always carefully examined, but it would be idle to hope that all error has been avoided”.

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