Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Explainer: What's the census and can we afford to do without it?

An ancient relic or an essential tool for the 21st century? The government is considering abandoning next year's census in order to help the Bureau of Statistics fund other priorities. In future we would only complete the census once every 10 years instead of every 5. Should the second Tuesday next August be freed up for other pursuits? And what would be lost if it was? Peter Martin starts counting.

What exactly is the census?

It's a questionnaire delivered to every household in the nation, even remote ones. It asks who was sleeping at that address on the night, where they normally sleep, their ages, relationships to each other (daughter, mother etc) and up to 60 questions including age, income, occupation, address of work and means of travel to work, as well as the one voluntary question - religion.

Many people don't take the religion question very seriously. In the 2011 census 65,486 Australians said they were Jedi Knights.

You say the religion question is voluntary. Is the census itself compulsory?

Yes. The Census and Statistics Act provides for penalties of up to $110 per day for people convicted of failing to complete it.

What is it used for?

Planning. It’s the only accurate means of measuring the population. In between times the ABS guesses the size of the population by using births, deaths and immigration records. But it gets it wrong. After each census its replaces its guesses with what the census tells it is the truth. In 2011 it cut its estimate of the Australian population by 294,400.

It also tells the Bureau where people live. Without counting them there's no way of knowing how many people live in each town or suburb. Tony Abbott talks of building the roads of the 21st century, but without knowing where the population is and where it moves to each day it's hard to know where to put them.

But it's just a series of snapshots. It can't tell us how people grow and change over time, can it?

It can now. Since 2006 the census has asked for our dates of birth as well as our names, enabling it to track our movements over time.

So it's just getting really useful?

Oh yes. We've had the census since 1911. Since 1961 we've had them every 5 years. Since 2001 we've been given the option of having our census forms retained for use by future historians.

Is the census a threat to privacy?

It seems quaint by the standards of today and the debate over metadata, but people used to think so. Broadcaster Derryn Hinch used to urge Australians not to return their forms.

The census comes with a promise of absolute confidentiality, but it has been broken overseas in times of war. During the second world war the United States census bureau supplied the authorities with the names and addresses of Japanese Americans who were rounded up and placed in internment camps.

Isn't the census outdated now we do surveys? The ABS surveys 26,000 households to get the unemployment data and does a pretty good job.

The survey does a good job because of the census. The Bureau 'bulks up' the answers to its employment survey by multiplying them by numbers that will give it results for the populations of each region. It only knows those populations because of the census. In between times its guesses get wonky. In January 2014 it revised down its estimate of the number of people employed by an extraordinary 167,300 because of new information from the census. Employment growth had looked acceptable in Labor's last year in office. It suddenly looked weak.

So why on earth would the Bureau want to axe the 5-yearly census, moving instead to a census every 10 years?

It says it has a new means of accurately measuring the population in each location, but curiously it won't say what it is. Some of the wilder guesses include counting the number of active mobile phones near each tower, and using traffic cameras. The truth is likely to be less interesting. But it'll be experimental. Moving to a new method of counting the population without also running the census as a check invites mistakes. The Bureau says it will still run a census every 10 years, but it is well aware of the size of errors that can accumulate in just 5 years.

Is there something else behind this?

Yes. The 2016 census was to be Australia's first predominantly online census. Australians would be posted a code and invited to log in rather than delivered a document. But planning for it is critically behind time and over budget. The Bureau would have big problems delivering it on time as promised. It wants to spend the money upgrading its computer systems instead. The last census cost $440 million, which would free up a lot of money.

Is the Bureau legally allowed to abandon the 2016 census even if the government wanted it to?

No. The parliament would also have to amend the Census and Statistics Act. The Act requires the Bureau to conduct a census every 5 years. The last one was in 2011. The Bureau would need the support of Labor and The Greens and Palmer Party and independents to get the amendment through the Senate.

So the Bureau is in serious trouble?

Yes. If it can't get the law changed it could conduct a scaled-down census with fewer questions, but that would be cheating.

How did it come to this?

The Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments starved the Bureau of funds. The Abbott government left it without a chief executive for almost a year. Hundreds of staff have been shown the door. The census is dying of neglect.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Related Posts

. The ABS, not the Abbott government, is behind the plan to axe the 2016 census

. Blowing out our brains. Our census faces the axe

. Census 2016. Why the questions will be answers in themselves