Census: tonight’s the night

By Melissa Coade

August 10, 2021

Australian Statistician Dr David Gruen wants 95% census compliance this year.
Australian Statistician Dr David Gruen wants 95% census compliance this year. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is hoping for a 95% response rate this year for the national count of each household and person in Australia.

It has been a long five years for Australians since the last census, when a hardware router service led to the whole census site being pulled down. The culprit, according to the government of the day was a denial of service attack and the contrition was palpable.

Back then, Malcolm Turnbull the nation’s leader and Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, was the treasurer.

The 2016 census failure was dubbed ‘one of the worst IT debacles Australia has ever seen’ by Labor. 

So what will this year’s census have in store for us as a country (half of whom are subject to COVID-19 lockdown orders) settles in to record some essential statistics? 

Early birds

As of Monday, more than 2 million completed forms had already been received by the ABS. That is more than double the early submissions made by Wednesday 4 August. 

Households in Australia’s most locked down states — NSW, Victoria and Queensland — have submitted the highest number of early responses, followed by South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

Census executive director and ABS national spokesperson Andrew Henderson issued a statement on Monday urging Australians to log on and complete their forms as early as possible. 

“Thanks to everyone who has already completed early. 

“We’re encouraging everyone who hasn’t yet completed their census to take the opportunity to complete it today as soon as you can,” Henderson said. 

Under the Census and Statistics Act 1905, participation in the national census is compulsory for all Australians but the ABS is aiming to achieve compliance with informed and willing participants.

In order to meet the goal of collecting as much data as possible, the ABS accepts submissions for several weeks after census night (this year that falls on 10 August). This system is also designed to cater to people living in rural and remote areas, and those who submit their responses using a paper form. Some face-to-face interviews are also conducted to assist people experiencing homelessness, or people living in remote indigenous communities to participate.

Questions about gender and religion draw ire of interest groups

Prominent Drag Queen Courtney Act is the face of a coalition of eight LGBTIQ+ groups advocating for the census to include questions on gender and sexuality. The current census only asks one question on sex and provides three options for people to nominate: male, female or non-binary.

The groups point to other nations like the UK and New Zealand, which include questions in their national equivalent to the census that ask these questions to better understand the diversity of the LGBTIQ+ community. 

“To not be included in a mass survey of the entire population, it feels a bit dirty. It feels to me like we’re being erased, ignored — that there is a denial of the existence of queer people,” Act told SBS News. 

Act said that without this kind of vital information, it was difficult for policy and decision-makers to understand the community it served, and its needs.

“Queer people manifest in religious communities, in people with disabilities, people of diverse genders. There are First Nations LGBTIQ+ people. All of these facets of Australian society are contained in the LGBTIQ+ community.

“For us to have that information allows us to know who we are better as a nation and allows us to allocate resources to bring about change for more marginalised people,” Act said. 

In 2018 the ABS commenced a process to consider what new questions it should include in its list. The only two new topics that it settled on were related to long-term health conditions, and ADF service.

Topics to add or remove from the census are decided by government and recommended by the ABS. Once the government has settled on the proposed questions it wants to include in the national survey, they are tabled in parliament for approval.

According to reports by The Guardian, the possibility of additional gender and sexuality questions was scratched after the ABS sought advice from the office of the assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar. The MP has previously told the paper that the ABS did not seek a decision on the questions from him, and confirmed that he did not provide a decision about the gender and sexuality census questions. 

One question among the 65 contained in the Australian census has also ruffled a few feathers — it is the one asking about a person’s religion. The national secular lobby has gone on record to express the view that they believe the voluntary question is ‘leading’. Paul Willis, representing the group, said the religion question was likely to ‘give a distorted view of people’s religious views’. 

“The question as it’s phrased has an implicit assumption that the person has a religion,” Willis told news.com.

“This makes it more likely for people to tick the religion box.”

Professor Willis’ concerns echo that of Act’s — he believes the wording may not not seem like a big deal but it was important how the question was phrased.

“You could say, who cares,” Willis said. 

“However, governments will use these stats on decisions about funding religious schools, religious aged care facilities etc.

“If there is a disproportionate basis for them to thinking there’s greater religiosity, then their funding decision may be influenced.”

Another group, the Rationalist Society, have called for those who do not practise their religion or lapsed out of it to tick ‘no religion’.


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