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Explainer: what is the census, and why does it matter?

The act of taking a census is as old as civilisation itself. AAP/Dean Lewins

Explainer: what is the census, and why does it matter?

Despite being one of our oldest public institutions, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) social media campaign for the 2016 Census is a clever nod to the modern zeitgeist. This census will ask us to “pause” (presumably Netflix) and “make a difference” on the night of Tuesday, August 9.

Held every five years (compared to the ten-year censuses of the UK and US), the ABS describes the census as a:

… snapshot of Australia, showing how our nation has changed over time, allowing us to plan for the future.

Census data have a real impact on the lives of Australians, from determining political representation through the distribution of electorates, to the allocation of government funding, as well as private investment based on projected demand for goods and services.

Australia uses the census to evaluate how well it is progressing on myriad issues, such as Indigenous policy, the distribution of health outcomes by socioeconomic inequality and to plan for population growth.

The census’ evolution

The act of taking a census is as old as civilisation itself; Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Persian and Chinese empires all conducted censuses.

The primary purpose of these seems to have been twofold: establishing the size and strength of a potential army in case of war, and enabling effective taxation (in large part to fund these armies).

The industrial and scientific advances of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the public, and in the ability to statistically “manage” populations.

Economics and sociology as developing academic disciplines further motivated population data collection. The defining idea was that a nation’s physical and moral “progress” could be measured statistically. Thus, the modern census was born.

Today the census plays an essential role in Australia’s public life. It provides the raw data with which policies can be planned and outcomes assessed.

While knowing Australia’s total population at one point in time might seem of little use (as this number is almost immediately out of date), the question of exactly where people are living, and the changing characteristics of these local populations, is of vital importance.

Technological developments and privacy

The 2016 Census is in some ways a case of continuity and change. No new questions have been added since the 2011 Census, which makes it easier to compare outcomes across both years.

The big change the ABS is pushing in 2016 is the ongoing move to a more digital census. It is hoping 65% of households will complete the 2016 Census online, compared with 33% in 2011.

Another more controversial change in 2016 is the decision to retain names and addresses temporarily in order to link census results with other administrative data for research and policy assessment purposes.

These records will be kept for four years. During that time they are protected with both digital and physical safeguards. However, privacy groups and those concerned about the potential for government overreach have flagged worries.

Australia uses the census to evaluate how well it is progressing on myriad issues, such as Indigenous policy. David Sproule/AAP

Sensitive information

Providing the government with personal information, especially on religion or race, is a sensitive issue. This is one of the reasons the question on religious affiliation has remained optional in every Australian census since the first in 1911.

In the early colonial censuses, with their origins in the military-style “musters” of Governor Arthur Phillip, convict status was also a sensitive and unpopular question. It was eventually removed in the second half of the 19th century. The first simultaneous census of all Australian colonies was held in 1881 as part of a wider census of the British Empire.

By this time, the question of race had gained prominence, with the population divided into Australians, Chinese (who had arrived in large numbers during the gold rush) and Indigenous Australians. However, Indigenous Australia would not be properly included in the census count until 1971.

Data retention

The history of the Australian census also tells an interesting story about the changing attitude towards the retention of personal information, as reintroduced this year.

In 1891, Victorian statistician Henry Hayter chose to destroy the original census forms rather than hand them over to the police, who wanted access to private records to track down suspected criminals.

Australia has been an outlier in its commitment to destroying individual census records throughout the 20th century. In Canada, the UK and the US, personal records are retained under embargo.

The census represents in many ways the goals and values of our time; we measure what we think is important. But with power (to measure) comes great responsibility, and trust in public institutions like the ABS is therefore crucial.