A short history of the census in Australia
Every five years in August, Australia conducts a Census of Population
and Housing (census). The census provides information on the number of people
living in Australia, their ancestry, and how they live and work.
Coordinated accounting of populations and other statistics for public
administration purposes dates back to the late 18th century in
Australia in activities called musters. Before federation, each state conducted
its own censuses, with the first held in New South Wales in 1828.
On 8 December 1905, the federal Census and Statistic Act 1905 was
passed. The Act provided:
- that the census shall be taken in the year 1911, and in
every tenth year thereafter; and
- the census day shall be a day appointed for that purpose
The first Statistician of the Commonwealth of Australia (the Australian
Statistician) was appointed on 18 June 1906 and in the same year the
Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was formed; later to be re-named
the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 1975.
As set out in the Act, the Australian Statistician conducted the first
national census in April of 1911.
The ABS, in a later reminiscence, provided an insight into the scale and
challenges faced by the earlier censuses:
Around 7300 collectors and enumerators were appointed for the
collection work on the first census. Collectors were mainly on foot, or used
horses to cover their areas. Some collectors also used bicycles...Most collectors
were able to undertake their work in the specified time with no major
difficulties. However flooding and bogs stranded some collectors in Queensland,
while a drought in Western Australia meant that some were unable to find feed
for their horses...In all states police provided details of tramps and campers.
Over four million census cards were counted by hand in 1911, the
Australian Statistician having eschewed the use of the available
tabulating machines due to fears of delays and concerns that 'most of the
machinery he saw was still at an experimental stage'.
Twenty-one years earlier, tabulating machines produced by Herman
Hollerith—whose company would later become International Business Machines
Corporation, better known today as IBM—were used successfully in the 1890
census in the United States of America. Partly as a result of the interruption
caused by war in Europe, the final Statistician's Report was not released until
Further censuses were conducted in 1921, 1933, 1947, 1954 and 1961. The
censuses in 1933 and 1947 were delayed by the depressed economic conditions of
preceding years and later the war.
The modern era
The 1966 census was the first to be held five years after the preceding
census, marking the commencement of a pattern that continues to today. The 1966
census marked the beginnings of the use of electronic computers for census
purposes in Australia:
For the first time a computer was used for processing of the
census, including for editing and coding of the data. The use of the computer
appears to have had no impact on the number of staff required nor on the time
taken to complete the processing. However the computer did have a significant
impact on the quality of the data as it enabled quality control checks to be
built into the processing system. It also made a significant difference to the
analysis of the data, with capability to produce far more complex tables than
were previously available.
As well as the increased flexibility of analysis by computers, 1966 also
saw the introduction of the Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) which provided an
important tool to improve the accuracy of the census. The PES allows the ABS to
correct the collected data to determine the number of people who were not
counted, and how many people who were counted twice.
A final change of note to the 1966 census was the demise of the
Statistician's Report (report). The report summarised and analysed the
census results and was published as a volume of analysis. Due to the amount of
work required, the report took between five and eight years to complete;
clearly too slow a turn-around given the census was now to be conducted every
The 1971 census saw, for the first time, a serious discussion regarding
privacy and the government's collection of information. Concerns appear to have
been stirred by a television program which aired one month before the census
investigating the supposed privacy invasions of government information
The 1976 census witnessed even greater concerns regarding privacy, at
the same time the census was extended to cover more areas of people's lives to
inform the major social changes the Whitlam government envisaged.
The ABS' official history reports:
In the two months before the census date there was
considerable public debate about the census, with privacy a big issue. The
Bureau faced attacks from many quarters. With the limited pre-census publicity,
the Bureau was unable to clear up all misunderstandings based on inadequate
information that arose during the debate.
The PES revealed that fewer people had responded to the census than for
previous censuses. This meant that for the first time the ABS adjusted the
results of the 1976 census based on benchmarking rather than using the direct
population count of the census data.
Partly as a consequence of the privacy concerns surrounding the 1976 census, the
ABS began to make it publicly clear that census forms were always destroyed once
the data from them had been processed.
Following the 1976 census, the ABS increased community engagement in the
development of the census and encouraged a greater understanding of the value
of the census data in the population at large. In 1979, the Australian Law
Reform Commission (ALRC) tabled the report Privacy and the Census in
Parliament. Key recommendations of the report included:
The public should be informed both about the need for census
information and about the measures taken to protect confidentiality;
census information should not be destroyed but should be
transferred to security in the national archives;
access to census information should be forbidden for most
purposes for 75 years; and
highly sensitive information should not be sought on a compulsory
basis unless there was a highly compelling need.
The ABS generally accepted the recommendations of the ALRC, but
continued to destroy census records after the data had been extracted.
The 1981 census did not suffer from the same privacy concerns as those
in the 1970s, with the PES finding an improvement in the response rate.
In 1991, the census date was moved to August to be clear of all school holiday
periods. The 1991 census also marked the start of regular consultations with
the Privacy Commissioner on operational procedures.
Due to concerns regarding the cost of conducting the census, in 1993 the
Australian Government established and interdepartmental committee to consider
ways of reducing the costs of administering the census. The committee
identified two options: reduce the frequency of, and number of questions in,
the census. The committee recommended the continuation of the census in its
Public support for the census appears to have hit a modern peak in 1996
with a non-response rate of only 1.6 per cent.
The Adelaide Advertiser provided an enthusiastic endorsement of the census,
The five yearly census is one of the best public investments
Australia makes. It pays for itself many times over in the information it
provides for planners in both the public and private sectors. At the everyday
human level its findings are engrossing, especially when tracked over time.
The 2001 census saw privacy concerns again being considered in the
lead-up to the census. The issue was whether the census forms should be
destroyed or kept for posterity. The ABS was reportedly wary of retaining the
forms. As the ABS official history reports:
The experience of the 1970s taught the Bureau to believe that
any suggestion that the census was less than completely confidential could have
a profound impact on the quality of the data collected.
In 1998, the government decided on a compromise, giving people the
opportunity to opt-in to allow their personal details—including name identification—to
be retained for release in 99 years. Slightly more than fifty per cent of
respondents agreed to have their details kept in the 2001 census. The remainder
of the census forms were destroyed in accordance with past practice.
The number of households opting to have their census forms retained has
increased in every subsequent census, with 56.1 per cent and 60.6 per cent
opting-in in 2006 and 2011 respectively.
In 2006, for the first time, the census was available to be completed
online by the general public, with 10 per cent of households submitting their
data using this method. In 2011, the take-up rate for the online census was 33
per cent following on the back of digital engagement and endorsement strategies
undertaken by the ABS in the lead-up to the census.
Importance of the census
The census has been a long-standing part of Australian public life. It
is easy to forget the importance of the census, and the importance of the
statistics that result from it.
The ABS provides a useful summary of the census, and its purpose:
A [census] is an official count of the complete population
and the dwellings in which they live. A census provides a detailed snapshot of
the population and dwellings, at a point in time.
The Australian Census provides a reliable basis for the
estimation of the population of the states, territories and local government
areas, for use in: determining the number of seats allocated to each state and
territory in the House of Representatives; distributing billions of dollars of annual
goods and services tax revenue to the states and territories; and influencing
grants to states and to local government areas.
Census data is used to determine electoral boundaries, distribute tax
revenue fairly, and model the need for services. Governments, non-government
organisations, community groups and businesses all rely on the census. The
committee heard that the true power of the census comes from the low-level data
that allows informed decision making and research.
The Department of Social Services highlighted the importance of census
data to the government in providing services to Australians:
The Census is vital for understanding the characteristics and
behaviours of vulnerable populations of policy interest for DSS, including
newly arrived migrants, people with a disability and jobless families.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies informed the committee that
the census is the 'only way in which to obtain good estimates of the incidence,
distribution, and characteristics of so-called "rare populations"'.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry Inc. pointed out that for a community
of their size:
...only a national census has sufficiently broad coverage to
deliver data at the level of detail required to make even basic assessments about
our community...the Jewish community has little alternative but to rely on the
census to provide accurate data to help plan for our social, welfare, care,
educational and security needs.
Similarly, the National Catholic Education Commission highlighted that
'the data derived from [the census] are an integral component of the Australian
education infrastructure' as it is used to anticipate demand and allocate
The Life Course Centre (LCC) highlighted that although governments are
collecting increasingly large quantities of administrative data, the census is
the only 'definitive data source that provides universal coverage of the
Australian population in its entirety'.
As the LLC explained:
The Census is the cornerstone for important social and economic
research analyses in Australia, since it produces official statistics that can
be used to benchmark population, mortality, and other statistics.
Volunteering Tasmania noted that in an environment of declining funding
for many areas of research, the census remains 'a source for consistent,
longitudinal data for the volunteering industry'.
The data from the census is also used to underpin survey sampling as it
allows researchers to identify segments of the population that are under-represented
or absent in a sample.
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