Census has again found itself embroiled in a national discussion about the value of the population count.
Privacy, religion, gender, and sexual identity have featured in debates about Australia’s 18th five-yearly stock take.
But not a census goes by without controversy, and for all the census controversies there are triumphs and reasons for celebration.
From technological advancement, to social change, and difficult-but-necessary conversations, the history of the Census itself reflects a phenomenal story of Australia.
Beyond statistics, census processes have reflected and prompted progress. Census 2021 is no different.
Few could forget the 2016 #censusfail, when the nation attempted to complete the five-yearly population questionnaire only to find the system offline.
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks resulted in a cascade of technology failures. The Census platform was offline for close to two days, yet it could have easily been fixed by simply restarting the purpose-built routers.
Privacy concerns and misinformation plagued the survey in the lead up to #censusfail, resulting in highly charged public sentiment. The collection of name and address information piqued the nation’s interest, with many wrongly believing it was the first time the details were asked in census.
Australians have taken issue with providing names and addresses as part of census from the very first national collection in 1911. It appears Australians have always been a suspicious bunch, concerned by government overreach.
Census collectors, asking after householders and their particulars, have borne the brunt of public hostilities.
In early censuses, forms were completed by enumerators, with accuracy and low literacy among the main motivations. Stories recounted by census collectors include wary householders pulling shotguns or bladders stretched from the many cups of tea.
A world-standard count
Despite census furore that surfaces every five years, Australian census data has typically been good by world standard.
Even when Jedi was reported as a religion.
But the 1976 last-minute census is a standout flop. The biggest census failure of our history.
Amid political instability, funding uncertainty, and high negativity regarding census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was left with no choice but to produce only a handful of national demographic indicators, and in fact resorted to processing only 50 per cent of census forms in totality.
The ABS, and data users, have learned from this experience and a lot of the census education campaigns reflect the 1976 experience.
Census has reflected and promoted progress
Law reforms and changing norms are reflected in census. No longer does the ABS refer to the masculinity of the population (proportion of males), or require head of households complete the form (again men).
People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are supported through translation services to fill out the census, accessibility for people with disability is supported to enable independent completion, and homeless people are counted no matter where they sleep.
Among the major social changes reflected in the conduct of census include the inclusion of women employed for data collection and processing, and the inclusion of First Nations Australians in the census.
Women were excluded from working as census collectors because of the belief they were more prone to dog bites.
The ABS began recruiting women in the early 1950s, during a period of Australian history when women were not valued equally in the workplace to men.
And most profoundly, in 1971, First Nations peoples were counted equally in the national enumeration following the 1967 referendum.
First Nations peoples were no longer disempowered or reduced to racial blood fractions in a government data collection.
The ongoing work by the ABS to ensure empowerment for all Australians through data continues to progress through stakeholder engagement.
Pandemic-proof and beyond
Census 2021 is history making. This year’s census is the first to be held during pandemic lockdowns and economic difficulties in Australia’s history.
The 1931 and 1941 censuses were postponed due to great depression and World War II.
The 2021 census is possible due to improvements made as a result of the 2016 census fail. If it were not for the technology failures in 2016, the ABS would still be relying on census collectors and risking the spread of COVID-19.
Increased safeguards to the online platform, beefed-up telephone support, and appropriately funded census education will together help ensure Australia’s most important census of our time is completed safely and effectively.
There are opportunities for improvement in Census 2026 and beyond. Changes to the questionnaire in 2021 are catchup after nearly a generation of no change due to funding constraints.
These incremental changes have some way to go to reflecting contemporary Australia, but it’s a positive move forward.
The ABS finds itself in a precarious ongoing juggle to balance privacy and safety with the need for data.
Census questions must be understood by all and avoid the potential for harm. Not reflecting gender and sexual diversity in Census 2021 is a missed opportunity, but the risk of harm for individuals outing themselves to the household for the first time is perhaps a consideration.
Political influence cannot be overlooked also — the government after all must agree to the questionnaire content. Nonetheless, the ABS has attempted to count and understand the experiences of gender and sexually diverse Australians through a more private individual sample survey.
The future of census taking in Australia rests on the outcome of this year’s experience, with the alternative a less transparent and potentially more inaccurate administrative undertaking.
Dr Liz Allen is a demographer and lecturer at the Centre for Social Research & Methods at Australian National University.
Today is Census day. Help completing the Census is available by contacting the ABS.