The census matters – making it less frequent is a risky idea

Australia’s census covers a wide range of topics, including some that are very infrequently covered by other surveys. AAP/Dean Lewins

If reports are to be believed, both the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the federal government are strongly considering moving from a five-year to a ten-year census cycle.

This move has been on the cards for a little while, given major changes to the census in comparable countries (such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US) over recent years. Australia is a bit of an outlier in how often we conduct a census.

So, what might Australia gain from such a change? And what would it lose?

What is the census used for?

Ultimately, Australia uses the census for the allocation of seats in the lower house of federal parliament. We need to make sure that each MP represents roughly the same number of people. For that, we need population estimates.

But the census is also used to determine how the Commonwealth distributes funds to state and territory governments. For example, the number of Indigenous Australians in a given jurisdiction is used to allocate GST revenue. We can do this because the census provides reliable information about small population groups. The most recent Closing the Gap report relies heavily on census data to understand Indigenous employment and early childhood education.

The census is a vital resource for research purposes. For example, the ABS has recently developed the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset by linking censuses through time. This is a resource that is only just starting to be utilised and can shed light on dynamics and trends that aren’t available in smaller sample surveys.

The census is also great for marketing and planning purposes for businesses. Where is the market for a new café, or a new car cleaning service? The census can help with that.

One of the census’ key advantages is that it provides information about the population and their characteristics for very small geographic areas. This means that census data can be used by state/territory and local governments to plan for and deliver services. Is the population in an area ageing, or is it turning into a nappy valley? Do we need more aged care places, more childcare services or more primary schools?

We can get some of this information from administrative data – but not the detailed demographic and socioeconomic information. 10 years is a long time to have to wait.

Why Australia might consider changing the census

The census is expensive – very expensive. The 2011 Census cost about A$440 million to complete. While it would appear that the ABS has pushed for legislative change, it is also true that this is in the context of reduced ABS budgets. More needs to be done with less.

The census also imposes a burden on the population. It has been argued that the census is coercive and involves the collection of personal data. In part, this motivated the decision in Canada to make the census optional, though that move has been highly controversial.

It is also true that the census isn’t great at collecting information on all population groups. Mobile populations and those who live in gated apartments are notoriously hard to get information on. Also, because of its sheer scale, processing and publishing the census data takes time and results may be out of date by the time they are released.

There is also the growth in alternative sources of data. The UK considered dropping its census as it thought its administrative data combined with household surveys could do a good enough job. However, it announced in 2014 that it would proceed with a national census (it is ten-yearly) in 2021 after reviewing its options.

Is there scope to make other sensible changes?

I have argued in other contexts that Australia’s current data needs for Indigenous policy aren’t being met in the current statistical environment. The same is true undoubtedly in other policy domains. The census isn’t the only game in town, or even always the best one. So, are there other ways to redirect scarce resources?

The census is currently undergoing one of the greatest revamps in its 100-year history. From pen and paper for most of its history, in 2016 it is anticipated that nearly two-thirds of Australians will fill in the census online. To support this, the ABS will take advantage of recent technological developments.

Questions can also be relatively easy and painless to get put onto the census, but then are very hard to take off. There is certainly scope to trim the census back a bit to its core purposes and save money and people’s time.

On balance, is it worth keeping?

The census is a very rich source of information. Everyone knows the census counts people, but it yields information about other types of statistical units, including families and dwellings. It covers a wide range of topics including some that are very infrequently covered by surveys such as unpaid work.

Alternatives such as the use of administrative data from population registers, possibly supplemented by sample surveys, are also expensive. Issues such as the public acceptability of alternatives like population registers would need to be considered.

Ultimately, one positive is that the news is out there way before the budget or any legislative changes. Australians can have a debate about whether we are willing to give up such a resource, and what it means for our democracy to have less rather than more information.


This article was prepared with assistance by Heather Crawford at the ANU.

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