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Turning the tables on what we know about Australia's powerful people and institutions

Article (2,198 words) posted on 29 Mar 2018 by Rosie Williams

For the last four months I have been coding solidly to build the largest financial transparency project that exists in this country. This project is based on work I have done in previous years which I quickly decided to reboot, re-design and expand dramatically during December 2017.

Earlier last year I had submitted a proposal to LinuxConfAu for a talk based on the work I had done building open data projects for financial and political transparency. While these projects have been well-received I have never been able to establish funding for them and downed tools a few weeks before the 2016 Census in order to stave off the burnout I was experiencing.

It was this experience with open data that provided me with knowledge of the governance framework of so-called 'cross portfolio data integration projects' [also known as 'what we're doing now with your data'] which, in turn, informed my denunciation of the 2016 census. I was to learn that privacy law in Australia arose decades ago as a direct response to past threats to de-anonymise the census and I came to realise that privacy legislation and the Australian census co-exist in a dialectical relationship which stretches back decades into our immediate past.

It's interesting what you can learn about a country from studying their census! At this juncture in history a huge battle is underway over information. On one side the public battles for transparency and accountability of the powerful (government and corporations) while privacy advocates defend the person in the street from the will of these same players to obtain every conceivable piece of data we produce to surveil and manipulate us.

A useful conception of this battle of wills is termed information asymmetry. If we compare what government and big business know about us with what we know about them, things are skewed decidedly in the favour of the powerful. The government is very keen to know all about us as individuals, but very secretive in allowing we, the governed, to know what they are up to in our name. For the last year, the government has been using the key it created for each of us from our 2016 census data to join together all the administrative data we are forced to hand over to them in the course of daily business.

This all-consuming panopticon has been described by those who ran the focus groups to gauge our gullibility as creating a 'movie' of our lives, to be continually updated and available for pairing with our phone records & internet logs kept by our telcos for easy access by any agency that enforces law - no matter how trivial.

Just yesterday a two-day conference concluded that focused on the government's desire to break down the data silos that - to date - have provided us with some protection from the longstanding desire of governments past and present to better look at our lives. This morning, the Privacy Commissioner published his findings into the breach of health and prescriptions data that occurred in late 2016 when the government was discovered to have published the most sensitive data imaginable of 1 in every 10 Australians free to one and all on data.gov.au.

That our personal data will be considered an asset raises many questions about who our data will be sold or given to, who will bear the risks of this approach to governance and who will reap the benefits?

The work I do turns the tables on these intrusions and provides the public with the ability to investigate funding decisions made by the government to better see who are the beneficiaries. The project integrates multiple financial datasets, making it the most comprehensive and powerful project of it's kind.

In fact the project is so big that for my first blog post since I began coding last year, I can only do a whirlwind tour taking in some of it's features:

On the theme of privacy, I have combined a list of agencies (revealed via FOI) with Commonwealth budget data to alert users to the Commonwealth agencies that routinely access telephone & internet metadata.

Staying with budget data, I have linked welfare demographics data (just click the payment name in the table under the graph) to budget data so that you can switch back and forth between the two to see how many people receive each payment type by year and the cost of that to the budget. Breakdown of recipient numbers by federal electorate will be available soon.

For ease of analysis, I have added additional charts of the yearly totals for all income support payments, both with and without logarithmic scaling. The optional scaling is useful because of the large difference between the number of people in receipt of the Age Pension as compared with the other payment types (some of which are very similar and so hard to distinguish from each other on a graph).

This data can be of use in discussions about changes in social security policy such as removing people from DSP and Parenting Payment to Newstart. You can search budget data here.

Moving on now to tax transparency data, each year the ATO now publishes data on Australia's top-earning companies showing total income, taxable income and tax paid. You can see this data listed by income and divided between those who pay some tax and those who pay none.

When you click on the company name or ABN you can toggle between the data from available years and see the percentage of taxable income to total income and the percentage of tax payable to taxable income. The reason tax paid is calculated as a percentage of taxable and not total income is because the percentage of company tax paid by our top-earning companies is such a small fraction of their total incomes as to render many of these percentages effectively zero. At a time when cutting the company tax is a hot topic on the poltical agenda I hope this data will provide useful insights to debate.

As with most of the charts you will encounter on AusGov.info, users need to click on the bar chart totals to see the breakdown from that particular year.

A strong area of public interest in this work is the cross over between political donations and top-earning companies. You can see the top-earning companies alongside the donations made by them to political parties. This list is ordered by the amount of tax paid by each company from least to most.

You can explore all payments to political parties and the list of donors with totals for each year between 2013 & 2017.

It is important to understand that though we consider our large corporations to be flush with funds, our charity sector also wields very considerable political and financial power. There are over 50 thousand registered charities in Australia and they receive not only donations from the public, but government funding both in the form of grants and tenders from all levels of government.

You can explore the total grants & tenders declared by registered charities by total revenue as well as total assets and donations received. You can even search charities, companies and political parties and get totals by year from the following datasets:

  • Australian Charities & Not-for-Profit Annual Information Statement data
  • Australian Charities & Not-for-Profit charities register data
  • ATO Tax Transparency data
  • Commonwealth Tenders data (breakdown of tenders data coming soon)
  • AEC Political Donations data
  • AEC Parties Register

Another section of the site coming soon is the Taxation Expenditures Statement which is a lot more interesting than it's title implies. The TES is an annual report that provides estimates of the cost of all the tax concessions to the Commonwealth Budget. At present there is a pie chart which provides an understanding of the relative cost to the budget of the 100 biggest concession types. I hope to add the background data to this in the near future- as well as add back in the pages that are currently removed for updates (tenders, electorate & locality searches) as time permits.

As you can see, there is more than enough data to keep any curious blogger busy for quite some time! I would like to thank the people who have shown me moral support while I have built this project during the gruelling past months. There have been times when your comments were the only thing that kept me going. A special thank you goes to the few people who think my work is worth contributing to financially (and who are in a position chip in).

It is probably worth saying that there can be errors in the figures you see on the site that can be introduced at any point throughout the process whether in the data contributed by organisations to government or as it is published by government or due to my data cleaning or coding, including the algorithms that I create. Bits and pieces of what I have created here have been done before in other places but integration of different datasets to allow cross searching requires more expertise and labour than can be thrown together in a weekend hack or to inform the odd news story.

So welcome to my AusGov.info, I look forward to your feedback :-)