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Census in Australia
The census in Australia, or officially, the Census of Population and Housing, collects key characteristic data on every person in Australia, and the place they are staying in, on a particular night. The census is the largest statistical collection compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and is held every five years. Participation in the census is compulsory, although answering some questions (such as religion) is optional. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is legislated to collect, hold and disseminate census data under the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 (ABS Act), and the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Census and Statistics Act).
The first Australian census was held in 1911, on the night of 2 April (previous censuses being organised by the colonies) and subsequent censuses were held in 1921, 1933, 1947, 1954 and 1961. In 1961 the five-year period was introduced. Censuses are held on the second Tuesday of August. The most recent was held on 9 August 2016 at a cost of $440 million.
The census counts all people who are located within Australia and its external and internal territories, with the exception of foreign diplomats and their families, on census night. For the first time, in 2016 Norfolk Island was included in the Australian census rather than being conducted by the Norfolk Island Government. The census examines data such as age, gender, incomes, occupations, dwelling types and occupancy, transportation modes, ancestry, languages spoken, and religion.
Australian Standard Geographical Classification
The census is collected and published against geographic areas defined by the Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC). The ASGC provides a set of geographic classifications (called structures) for the dissemination of all ABS statistics. In 2007 the ABS published an experimental set of spatial units called mesh blocks. The primary aim of mesh blocks is to provide a building block for constructing alternative and more relevant geographies. Only data on total persons and total dwellings is released at the mesh block level. Mesh blocks will form the basis of a new statistical geography, the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS).
The main structure of the ASGC includes the following geographic areas, from smallest to largest:
- Collection District (CD)
- Statistical Local Area (SLA)
- Statistical Subdivision (SSD)
- Statistical Division (SD)
- State/Territory (S/T)
ASGC structures include:
- Local government area
- Statistical district
- Statistical region
- Section of State
- Urban centre and locality
The main structure of the ASGS includes the following units, from smallest to largest:
- Statistical Area Level 1 (SA1)
- Statistical Area Level 2 (SA2)
- Statistical Area Level 3 (SA3)
- Statistical Area Level 4 (SA4)
- State/Territory (S/T)
ASGS ABS structures include:
- Capital Cities
- Significant Urban Areas
- Urban Centre and Locality
The traditional concept of a Collection District is that it was the area that one census collector can cover (delivering and collecting census forms) in about a ten-day period. In the 2001 census, collectors may be allocated more than one urban collection district because of their size. In urban areas collection districts average about 220 dwellings. In rural areas the number of dwellings per collection district reduces as population densities decrease.
For the 2016 census there were 358,122 ‘mesh blocks’ and 57,523 spatial Statistical Area Level 1 regions defined throughout Australia.
The Census and Statistics Act 1905 and Privacy Act 1988 guarantee that no personally-identifiable information is released from the ABS to other government organisations, or the public. However the ABS makes confidential census data available to researchers, who must make various legal commitments before being given access.
In the 1970s there was public debate about privacy and the census. In 1979 the Law Reform Commission reported on Privacy and the Census. One of the key elements under question was the inclusion of names. It was found that excluding names reduced the accuracy of the data; individuals were more likely to leave questions blank and post-enumeration surveys would not be possible.
On 18 December 2015, the ABS announced that it will retain name and address data collected in the 2016 census for up to four years. This was an increase from 18 months in the 2006 and 2011 censuses.
Destruction of census forms
From 1971 to 1996 the ABS had a policy of destruction of the original census forms and their electronic representations, as well as field records. Prior to that it appears there was no explicit policy of destruction, but most material had been destroyed because of lack of storage facilities. However the 2001 census offered, for the first time, an option to have personal data archived by the National Archives of Australia and released to the public 99 years later, and in 2001 54% of Australians agreed to do so.
Counting indigenous Australians
Indigenous Australians in contact with the colonists were enumerated at many of the colonial censuses. When the Federation of Australia occurred in 1901, the new Constitution contained a provision (Section 127), which said: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” In 1967, a referendum was held which approved two amendments to the Australian constitution relating to indigenous Australians. The second of the two amendments deleted Section 127 from the Constitution. It was widely believed at the time of the referendum, and is still often said, that Section 127 meant that aboriginal people were not counted in Commonwealth censuses before 1967. In fact section 127 related to calculating the population of the states and territories for the purpose of allocating seats in Parliament and per capita Commonwealth grants. Its purpose was to prevent Queensland and Western Australia using their large aboriginal populations to gain extra seats or extra funds. Thus the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics interpreted Section 127 as meaning that they may enumerate “aboriginal natives” but that they must be excluded from published tabulations of population. Aboriginal people living in settled areas were counted to a greater or lesser extent in all censuses before 1967.
The first Commonwealth Statistician, George Handley Knibbs, obtained a legal opinion that “persons of the half blood” or less are not “aboriginal natives” for the purposes of the Constitution. At the first Australian census in 1911 only those “aboriginal natives” living near white settlements were enumerated, and the main population tables included only those of half or less aboriginal descent. Details of “half-caste” (but not “full-blood”) aborigines were included in the tables on Race. Details of those “full-blood” aborigines enumerated were included in separate tables. This practice was followed in all subsequent censuses up to 1966.
Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups
Ancestry data was included in the 1986 census. It was found when the data was evaluated that people who filled in the census were not sure what the question meant and there were inconsistent results, particularly for those people whose families had been in Australia for many generations. There were no ancestry related questions in 1991 or 1996. For 2001 it was decided that development of Government policies did need information about people who were either born overseas, or whose parents were born overseas. The questions were to mark the ancestries most closely identified with and to consider ancestry back as far as three generations. Respondents had the option of reporting more than one ancestry but only the first two ancestries they reported were coded for the census.
The results for 2001 were coded using the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG). This classification of cultural and ethnic groups is based on the geographic area in which a group originated or developed; and the similarity of cultural and ethnic groups in terms of social and cultural characteristics. The classification is specific to Australian needs and was developed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The classification is based on the self-perceived group identification approach, using a self assessed response to a direct question. This approach measures the extent to which individuals associate with particular cultural or ethnic groups.
Australia’s first census was held in November 1828 in the colony of New South Wales. Previous government statistical reports had been taken from “musters” where inhabitants were brought together for counting. In 1828, the white population was 36,598 of whom 20,870 were free and 15,728 were convicts. 23.8% of the population were born in the colony. 24.5% were women. There were 25,248 Protestants and 11,236 Catholics. Indigenous Australians were not counted.
Of the 36,598 people, 638 were living in what is now Queensland. There were also 18,128 people in Tasmania.
In the mid-19th century the colonial statisticians encouraged compatibility between the colonies in their respective censuses, and in 1881 a census was held simultaneously in each of the colonies. This was part of a census of the British Empire. The questions posed in the colonies were not uniform and Henry Heylyn Hayter, who conducted the Victorian census, found that this caused difficulties in dealing with Australia-wide data.
The population of Australia was 2,250,194.
1881 census results
NSW Vic Qld Tas SA NT WA Australia 751,468 862,346 213,525 115,704 276,414 9,797 29,708 2,250,194
At the time the Northern Territory was a territory of South Australia and had 3,451 people plus 6,346 Aboriginals in settled districts. Including its Northern Territory, South Australia had 286,211 people. The reported population of Western Australia did not include full-blood aborigines. The population of greater Melbourne was 282,947 and of Sydney was 224,939.
In 1901, there were 3,773,801 people (1,977,928 males and 1,795,873 females) counted in Australia.
Prior to Federation, each colony had been responsible for its own census collection. The census held during the first year of Federation, 1901, was again collected by each State separately. When planning for the 1901 census it was clear that Federation was forthcoming, and a uniform census schedule was developed.
The first national census was developed by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. The census occurred at midnight between 2 and 3 April 1911. Tabulation was carried out almost entirely by hand; over 4 million cards were sorted and physically counted for each tabulation. Results from the 1911 census took a long time to release with delays increased by World War I. The Australian population was counted as 4,455,005, “exclusive of full-blooded aborigines”.
In the census of 1911 many collectors used horses. A drought in Western Australia meant that some collectors were unable to find feed for their horses. Flooding and bogs stranded some collectors in Queensland.
In 1911 the census asked about deaf-mutism. This question was also asked in the next two censuses of 1921 and 1933. Deaf-mutism was found to be very high among 10- to 14-year-olds, with the same pattern existing in the 1921 census among 20- to 24-year-olds. The statisticians report on the 1921 census noted that it was “a reasonable assumption therefore that the abnormal number of deaf-mutes . . . was the result of the extensive epidemic of infectious diseases which occurred soon after many in those age groups were born.” Rubella was not known to be a possible contributor. During World War II, the ophthalmologist Norman McAllister Gregg began to investigate the connection between birth defects and the infection of mothers early in their pregnancy. In 1951, prompted by Gregg’s work, Australian statistician Oliver Lancaster examined the census figures of 1911, 1921 and 1933. He found a peak in the level of deaf-mutism in the age cohort born in 1898 and 1899 and that this matched with a known outbreak of rubella in those years. “This was the first time in the world that the link between rubella and congenital problems with unborn children was firmly established.”
Australia’s population counted in April 1921 was 5,435,700 “exclusive of full-blooded aborigines”. The statistician independently estimated the number of aborigines, both “full-blood” and “half-caste” by obtaining figures from the police and protectors of aborigines throughout the country.
One of the significant findings of the 1921 census was the low rate of males to females in the 20–30 year age group, showing the impact of World War I on the population.
The 1921 census introduced automatic machine tabulation equipment, hired from England for the census. Three punched cards were used to store individual, dwelling, and family information. The cards were processed using an electric sorting machine prior to final totalling with an electric tabulator machine, devised by Herman Hollerith.
The census was subsequently conducted in 1933, 1947, 1954, and every five years from 1961 onwards.
Following the 1967 referendum removing section 127 from the Constitution, the “race” question was re-designed for the 1971 census and methods for remote area collection examined to improve identification of indigenous origin.
There were 12,755,638 people counted.
The 1976 census was the largest undertaken to date, with 53 questions. Due to budgetary restraints, the Bureau was not able to complete normal processing of the data and a 50% sample was processed. There were 13,548,450 people counted.
The 1991 census was held on 6 August 1991.
The 1996 census was held on 6 August. There were 17,892,423 people counted in Australia. Of these, 342,864 people identified themselves as indigenous Australians. There were 139,594 overseas visitors.
The 2001 census was held on 7 August. There were 18,769,249 people counted in Australia. Of these, 410,003 people identified as indigenous Australians. There were 203,101 overseas visitors.
The 2006 census was conducted on the night of 8 August. There were 19,855,288 people counted in Australia. Of those, 455,031 people identified as indigenous Australians. There were 206,358 overseas visitors. For the first time, the territories of Cocos (Keeling) Islands were included in the 2006 census, following the enactment of the Territories Law Reform Act 1992.
The 2006 census contained 60 questions, all of which were compulsory except those relating to religion and household census data retention. The census cost around A$300 million to conduct.
For the first time, census respondents were given the option of completing an online “eCensus” in the 2006 census, as opposed to the traditional paper based version. By 17 August, more than 720,000 households had completed their census online.
Across Australia 8.4% of estimated dwellings lodged online. The highest percentage of internet lodgements was in the Australian Capital Territory with 14.8% of households using eCensus. This was a markedly different proportion of households than elsewhere in Australia, with the other states and territory ranging from 5.9% take-up in the Northern Territory to 8.9% in Western Australia.
The peak lodgement was between 8pm and 9pm on census night, when more than 72,000 online forms were received. The eCensus remained available throughout the entire census period. During the 24-hour period of 8 August (census night), eCensus delivered more than 12.5 million page views and at 8:47 pm more than 55,000 households were logged on simultaneously. IBM assisted with the development of the eCensus, having provided similar infrastructure and technology for the Canadian census earlier that year.
The 2011 census was held on the night of 9 August, using both paper and electronic “eCensus” forms. Minimal changes were made from the 2006 census, due to financial constraints on the ABS during the development of the 2011 census. The 2011 census was the largest logistical peacetime operation ever undertaken in Australia, employing over 43,000 field staff to ensure approximately 14.2 million forms were delivered to 9.8 million households.
The first results of the census were released in June 2012 on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.
The cost of the 2011 census was $440 million.
The census occurred on 9 August 2016. For the first time, the ABS significantly favoured internet submission of census forms over the traditional paper forms, claiming it expected more than 65% of Australians would be completing the census online. Reflecting this new preference, the tagline of the ad campaign for the census was the rhyming slogan “Get online on August 9”. Across many regions, paper forms were no longer delivered by default to homes, and households that wished to complete a paper census had to order such forms via an automated hotline. Letters were sent to each dwelling with unique code numbers that people would need to either login to the census website, or order a paper form if they preferred. By census night, many households had still not received such a letter. Contrary to previous years where censuses were both delivered and retrieved from households by dedicated census employees, in 2016 most of the paperwork relating to the census was delivered from and to the ABS by Australia Post.
The 2016 census was met by two controversies. The first was that the retention of names and addresses increased to up to 4 years, from 18 months in the 2006 and 2011 censuses, leading to concerns about privacy and data security. As such, some Australian Senate crossbenchers (from the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Jacqui Lambie Network) said they would not complete those specific sections of the census, despite the fines associated with incorrect completion of the census. The second was that many Australians could not complete the census online on the designated day. While a paper census form was also available on request, for 2016 the ABS was aiming for two-thirds online. However, the online census website shut down at about 7:30 pm AEST on the night it was to be completed.
According to the ABS, throughout 9 August the census website received four denial-of-service attacks. At 7:30 pm, when the site was being heavily used, a software failure meant that the ABS was unable to keep blocking the denial-of-service attacks, leading to the failure of a router. As a result, the ABS decided to close down the system as a precaution. The ABS reported that no census data were compromised. The Australian Signals Directorate was assisting the ABS to bring the infrastructure back online more than 24 hours after the closure.
The census website was restored at 2:30 pm on 11 August. On the same day Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated his unhappiness over the event, which had “been a failure of the ABS”, with his expectation that “heads will roll” once a review was complete. Leader of the opposition Bill Shorten said that the 2016 census had been the “worst-run … in the history of Australia”. The ABS blamed service provider IBM for the failure in the online census, saying that IBM had advised on the preparedness and resilience to DDoS attacks and had not offered any further protections that could be employed. On 31 August, Parliament initiated an inquiry into the 2016 census. It released its findings on 24 November: no individual party was found to be responsible but it was shared between the government, IBM, and the sub-contractors.
The census forms were able to be submitted online until 23 September.
Once collection was complete, the ABS issued an announcement which confirmed that in spite of the initial online problems, there was a preliminary response rate of more than 96%. This consisted of 4.9 million (over 58%) online submissions and 3.5 million paper forms. The preliminary response rate was similar to the previous two census response rates of 95.8% in 2006 and 96.5% in 2011.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the first release of census data became available to the public on the ABS website on 11 April 2017, two months earlier than for any previous census. The second release of data occurred on 27 June 2017 and a third data release was from 17 October 2017.
The Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics conducted manpower censuses at the time of the First and Second World Wars. In contrast to the national censuses, it appears that the individual records from the manpower censuses are still retained by the National Archives of Australia.
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