Why the census matters

Census takers on the streets of Sydney. AAP

The Census is useful and important. Governments and policy makers remain dependent upon the information it provides to govern responsibly.

Beyond being a simple count of people and assets, contemporary census-taking is a true child of the Enlightenment. It is premised on the idea that the information collected may be used to improve our material and social lives, through better understanding of what resources are required in what areas.

The most basic function of the Australian Census is to provide an accurate count of the Australian population, at a range of geographic scales, from the nation itself to the local neighbourhood or “collection district”.

Between censuses, population estimates are produced to provide an interim population count for policy makers and administrators - particularly important during periods of rapid population growth. However, the more time that has passed since the previous census, the less accurate these estimates are.

The Census therefore imposes a periodic reality check on population estimates. But, of course, the usefulness of census information is much more sophisticated than this.

The research activities of Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research (CPUR), provide a good indication of the value of Census data and some of the questions it can answer.

Census data can describe the movements of people within Australia and between Australia and other countries. This may be broad-scale residential movement, for example between states, or be at a much finer spatial scale – between local government areas.

In turn, mobility data facilitates other areas of inquiry. Censuses identify areas of greatest population growth and decline, which is essential information for urban planning and for the provision of key public services such as education and health.

Residential mobility data can provide an understanding of spatial differences in socio-economic status and how these change over time (by comparing data from different censuses). It can show, for example, whether the poor or disadvantaged are becoming more or less concentrated within our cities, or in particular regional locations.

Particularly relevant in the Australian context, census data provide insight into the settlement patterns of overseas migrants: where they live initially, their subsequent residential movement, and how they fair within the labour market. Intergenerational change can be identified between the socio-economic outcomes of overseas migrant settlers and their Australian-born children.

Census data can be used to map changing patterns of family or household formation, including changing patterns in marital status and fertility. For example, a 2004 study conducted by CPUR found that Australia had experienced a sharp decline in levels of partnering, particularly marriage, among people in their late twenties and thirties, mostly amongst men and women who did not hold tertiary degrees.

It also showed that much of the decline in partnering was among low-income men. This group also showed high rates of marital breakdown. In turn, this reflected the deterioration in the economic circumstances of men without post-school qualifications.

Fertility data is a basic input for the production of medium to long-term population projections. Such projections are a significant analytic tool for governments and the private sector, given the current unprecedented levels of population growth in Australia, particularly in the major metropolitan areas.

Estimates of the required scale of future health, education and other essential services are based on population projections which require, as one of their basic inputs, a reliable census-derived base year population count. National and regional population projections are also crucial to estimating the environmental impact of population growth, whether it is in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, allocation of water resources, land use or other factors.

The Census does not remain the same; it evolves to answer relevant contemporary questions. For example, for the first time, in 2006, the Australian Census included a question on volunteering behaviour, - widely considered to be useful in understanding civic altruism. This question is also included in current Census.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been a rapid growth in academic publications focused on the issue of social cohesion. In part, this has reflected the rapid social, economic and cultural change associated with increased global interdependence, including greater international population mobility. Therefore, the data on volunteering behaviour will make a timely and meaningful contribution to the debate about how to maintain social cohesion as global pressures intensify.

These are just some of the uses to which our census data is put. It is indeed a collective asset. The sound operation of contemporary government, whether at the national or the municipal level, would be unimaginable without it.