The 2016 Census of Population and Housing is scheduled to be held August 9 (next Tuesday). This will be the first Australian Census in history where more people are expected to complete it online than on paper. The Census and Statistics Act 1905 (the Census Act) provides for the Census to be held every five years.
For Commonwealth politicians, Census data is extremely useful in providing a link between geography, and population characteristics such as place of birth, ancestry and level of education. The Parliamentary Library uses Census data on a daily basis to inform Members and Senators about their community. Census data also provides the basis for official population counts, a benchmark for labour force estimates and to determine the number of seats allocated to each State and Territory in the House of Representatives. More broadly, Census data is currently used across a range of policy fields to inform government decision making. Although data from the Census could be obtained through other methods (for example, sample surveys and administrative data), it is currently the most efficient means through which to obtain certain information.
Retention of 2016 Census names and addresses
The ABS has historically destroyed name and address information after statistical processing of the Census had been completed, except for those people who consented to their data being transferred to the custody of the National Archives of Australia, as part of the Census Time Capsule Scheme.
However, on 18 December 2015, the ABS advised that it would: “retain the names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing to provide a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.” Linking Census data with other types of Government data will provide the research and policy community with a richer source of social and economic statistics. It will also improve the quality of Censuses over time. The ABS has indicated that names and addresses will be destroyed four years after collection in August 2020.
The ABS has previously linked 2011 Census data to other data through other means. For example, the ABS has linked a sample of records from the 2006 and 2011 Censuses using data linkage techniques without name and address, and 2011 Census data with Indigenous mortality data.
There has been significant recent controversy around the December 2015 decision to retain names and addresses. Specifically, concerns have been raised regarding: the provision of data electronically; the proposed retention of names and addresses by the ABS; and a concern that Census data could be inappropriately accessed, particularly given the fact that many households will complete their Census online.
There are a number of provisions in the Census Act which aim to protect the privacy of respondents. Specifically:
- any publication of data from the Census shall not enable identification of a particular person or organisation (Section 12);
- Census information cannot be divulged by current and former officers within the ABS without committing an offence (unless it is for the purposes of the Act) (Section 19); and
- Census information cannot be disclosed to other Commonwealth Departments, Executive/Statutory Agencies (other than in accordance with the Act), or a court or tribunal. (Section 19A)
The ABS has also emphasised that:
What are the implications of not completing the Census?
If an individual fails to complete the Census, the Australian Statistician can direct this person to fill in a form or answer questions within a specified period. If the person fails to comply with the direction, the person has committed an offence under the Act and may be subject to a penalty of $180 per day until the person complies with the direction.
In relation to the 2011 Census of Population and Housing, the ABS advised in its 2012-13 Annual Report that 1 282 Notices of Directions were issued in 2011-12, of which 78 were approved for prosecution action for referral to the CDPP. Not every prosecution action approved proceeds to court.