Census and the magic of accounting

By Tom Ravlic

June 29, 2022

yellow map of Australia on a white globe with a red drawing pin in the middle
Australia is twice as big as it was when the census was done in 1971. (Zerophoto/Adobe)


The release of the latest census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics takes me back to a lecture theatre on Charles Sturt University’s Wagga Wagga campus, where lecturer John Williams told students about the magic of accounting.

Williams’ style and emphasis was to inspire wonder in how a set of accounting numbers could be consolidated or aggregated to show a picture of an entity irrespective of whether it was a listed company, a not-for-profit such as a charity, or even a government department.

One number can tell an amazing story about the success or otherwise of an entity, and the judgements that go into how those accounting numbers are prepared and presented continue to fascinate me.

I still get the same sense of wonder when I see statistics pumped out by the ABS, and the census data release accompanied by a rather large dump of media releases was no exception.

Just think about the task these statisticians undertake here, before we start merrily throwing numbers around. They convert these individual sets of responses keyed into the website or on a paper census form into an aggregated data set that provides politicians, policymakers, researchers, and journalists an idea of who lives in the country called ‘Australia’.

Who are we?

We are — that is Australia is — twice as big as we were when the census was done in 1971, the year this writer was born. There were 12.5 million people counted back in 1971 and the country now has 25.5 million.

The 25.5 million is about 2 million more folks in the country than in the previous census, with some of the 2 million — just over 1 million people — having arrived between 2017 and 2019. That kind of migration was put on ice when the world was introduced to a little bug called the coronavirus.

Who knows where that number might have gotten to had COVID-19 not come on this country’s doorstep.

There are also apparently fewer people who will be able to be called ‘boomers’ because the ABS releases tell us that millennials are overtaking boomers.

Australian statistician David Gruen said the data collected for the census helps shape the kinds of services people from each generation will require.

“We see that an increasing number of baby boomers are needing assistance with core activities — with 7.4%  reporting a need for assistance, compared to 2.8% across the younger generations,” Gruen said.

“This information will help frame policy that delivers positive outcomes for our communities.”

That information might be important but the one question it doesn’t answer is whether a catch cry of ‘hey millennial’ will catch on in the same way as ‘hey boomer’.

One of the most fascinating things about this census is not merely the fact this process has released data that gives us a handle on who we are, but how this data is going to be used by our political parties and pressure groups to work out what it means electorally.

This data will be compared with polling results and other research in the lead-up to the next federal election. The material in this census, with all of its statistical magic, will provide the political numbers crunchers with the evidence they need to better understand what the likely political outcome in an electorate could be in 2025.


Census 2021: Increase in Aussies born overseas and First Nations people getting older

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