ABS advises against LGBTI census questions despite calls for data

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday December 11, 2019

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The Australian Bureau of Statistics has advised the Federal government not to include questions on gender identity and sexual orientation in the 2021 census because of “heightened risk of attention to changes” following the 2016 census denial of service attack.

Documents handed to the Senate earlier this month revealed that in July the ABS recommended the next national survey — planned for August 10, 2021 — introduce questions on chronic health conditions and Australian Defence Force service, but advised against new questions on potentially “problematic” topics.

“I would also ask that the government further consider the inclusion of topics on gender identity and/or sexual orientation in the 2021 census,” former ABS boss David Kalisch wrote to assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar.

“There is not such a strong case for these two topics as the other new topics proposed, and collection could be problematic given the nature of the issues and associated sensitivities. However, claims have been made about the need for information on gender identity and sexual orientation, that government is best placed to judge.”

Gender and sexuality questions were among eight potential new topics flagged for testing in 2018, along with journey to education, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity, smoking status, and improved household and family measures (such as shared care of children). Topics have not changed since the 2006 census.

The ABS noted possible risks to the upcoming census, such as negative public perception towards some questions, and privacy concerns which have arisen following the infamous 2016 census.

“The impact of events during the 2016 census means that there is heightened risk of attention to changes being made in the 2021 census. While this risk may be focused more on the technological performance of the 2021 census, the impact of other changes may be amplified,” the ABS said.

“The personal nature of some potential new topics is pertinent and the government may not want to progress on controversial topics at this time. Strong community support for the census overall will be essential to high response rates and good quality data.

“There is an acknowledged risk of adverse public reaction to possible topics on gender identity and sexual orientation. Initial testing locally and internationally on both topics has not found this type of reaction significant enough to impact on response rates or the quality of data, although the scale of testing in Australia has been necessarily modest to date.”

During consultations, stakeholders had called for census data on trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid populations in Australia, the document said, as a lack of accurate information had “left LGBTI people relatively invisible in mental health and suicide prevention policies, strategies and programmes”.

The Department of Health, the National Mental Health Commission, and the Department of Social Services had acknowledged that including questions on topics relevant to gender-diverse individuals would help inform health, aged care, and mental health services, the ABS said.

There were similar findings supporting the need for a question on sexual orientation. In particular, the Social Services and Health departments, the National LGBTI Health Alliance, and a number of state and local government agencies had called for reliable data to inform decision making on legislation, policies, budgetary investments and programs directly affecting the health and wellbeing of LGBTI people and their families.

“Submissions indicated that a new census topic on sexual orientation would have strong value across all levels of government and it is hoped that this would allow targeted support to be developed nationally and, potentially, in small areas,” the ABS added.

During Senate Estimates in October Kalisch revealed 20,000 test census forms printed with gender and sexuality questions were binned after meeting with Sukkar’s office.

“I have had some conversations with the minister’s office about helping them understand the nature of the consideration around the decision,” he said. “They did express a preference but ultimately it was my call.”

Economist Dr David Gruen took over from Kalisch on December 11. Previously a deputy secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Gruen has also had his fair share of dealing with political push back on LGBTI issues, having recently been involved in late night correspondence over an inclusive sign on a departmental toilet door.

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