Labor calls for small business minister Michael McCormack to resign after census “disaster”

Michael McCormack

Source: AAP Image/Andrew Taylor

Shadow Asssistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh has called for Small Business Minister Michael McCormack to resign over his handling of the 2016 Census, as the federal government continues to face heat over Tuesday’s nights events.

As reported by The Guardian, Leigh was asked on ABC Radio National if McCormack should resign or be sacked, saying: “Absolutely, Labor believes there is ministerial accountability.”

McCormack’s role in managing the census is a long shot from the small business portfolio, and his appointment to the role is likely due to his position in the treasury. In a response to Leigh’s call for his resignation, McCormack told the Daily Advertiser resigning would be “ridiculous.”

“It would be ridiculous in the extreme to think someone who’s had carriage of something for a matter of weeks, if not days, to have to stand down for something like this,” he said.

“A Labor senator called for my resignation, but that’s just part of the hurly-burly of politics.”

The census, which runs every five years, was taken online this year, with every Australian household expected to fill it out on Tuesday. Immense amounts of traffic led to the website crashing, and remaining offline for most of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Frustrated Australians took to Twitter to express their unhappiness with the online service, with the hashtag #CensusFail trending worldwide. “Guess who’s not doing the census? All of Australia! Maybe decent broadband would help!” tweeted one disgruntled Australian.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Twitter account attributed the downtime to a series of Direct Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, saying the website was intentionally shut down to “ensure the integrity of the data.”

However, the ABS has struggled to get its story straight, with McCormack saying on Wednesday morning the previous claim of an “attack” was misleading, referring to it instead as an “attempt to frustrate” the site, according to Fairfax.

“This was not an attack. Nor was it a hack but, rather, it was an attempt to frustrate the collection of Bureau of Statistics census data,” McCormack said on ABC radio.

However, speaking to Alan Jones on 2GB radio yesterday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull again labelled the disruption to the service as an “attack.”

“It appears that the cause of this that measures that ought to have been in place to prevent these denial of service attacks were not put in place,” Turnbull said.

“I too am very angry about this, I am bitterly disappointed about this.”

Some have argued these preventative measures to ensure the stability of the service from malicious DDoS attacks should have been implemented by IBM, the company which managed the infrastructure for the census. Information security journalist Patrick Gray spoke to the Project yesterday about why the census website crashed, claiming IBM “winged it.”

“This was amateur hour on a scale of which I have never seen, they hadn’t done the adequate preparation,” Gray said.

Turnbull also expressed his disappointment in IBM’s handling of the census, saying on 2GB “IBM has done this before, but there has clearly been a failure in the work that was done.”

What should have been done

Crisis Communications expert and director of InsideOut PR Nicole Reaney told SmartCompany “the Census implementation was a complete disaster” on a number of fronts.

“There’s been miscommunication, denials, opposing statements as to the cause and prolonged period between the site being down and restored,” Reaney said.

The ABS anticipated 10 million households would undertake the census online, and claimed the census form could handle one million form submissions every hour, which was “twice the capacity we expect to need”.

“Obviously the system testing, security and performance was not adequately addressed in the lead up. Any technological implementation requires this – and one at this scale needs it more than ever,” says Reaney.

“Call centres were also unprepared, with customers left unable to contact a representative, and finally the following day when they could customer service staff were advising the public that the media was exaggerating the issue at hand.”

Reaney says in crisis situations like these, “two avenues” need to be tackled at the same time: resolving and restoring the issue.

“In this case, the ABS needed to own up to the failure upfront, communicate how they will get it all back on track and including any extensions or other compensation plans installed to help appease disappointed consumers,” she says.

SmartCompany contacted Minister McCormack’s office but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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