Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Census 2016. Why the questions will be answers in themselves

They'll show how we're changing

You can tell a lot about a nation from its census - not only from the answers but also from the questions asked. Next census for the first time the Bureau of Statistics wants to ask about our second houses, and even our third ones.

“In the old days we all probably had a single house we lived in,” says census data director Jenny Telford. “But now many people have many places they call home. Children live in two houses in shared custody, workers fly in and fly out, many or us have holiday homes.”

The ABS isn’t sure how to word the new question - whether to ask whether there is another place we regard as home, or whether to ask whether there is another address we rest our heads so many nights a month. It’s begun a period of consultation that will last until May.

In 2016 it also wants to ask how we earn our money. Ever since 1911 the census has merely wanted to know how much we earned, on the safe assumption we made it from work. But these days Australians are increasingly earning money from investments and many live on government benefits. The ABS hopes a new question asking how we get our income will give it a handle on what type of people are beneficiaries and what type are investors. Ms Telford says eventually the form might ask us to tick a box to allow the Tax Office to hand over data that will detail dollar for dollar where our income comes from.

The Bureau also wants to ask the sort of questions a society asks when it gets old - who suffers from long-term health problems and where they live.

It also wants to change questions that are being rendered meaningless. "Asking whether your dwelling was connected to the internet made perfect sense when we first did it in 2001,” says Ms Telford... “But now people has iPads, multiple means of connecting to the internet. Our current question doesn’t capture the full picture. We need to work out what it is we want to know. Do we want to know about fixed connections, or about how much people are connecting and what they are doing whiel connected?”

Even the means of asking the questions will offer a window into changing times. The ABS will dispense with the army of 43,000 census collectors, posting letters with login details instead. “We are finding Australians increasingly want to interact with us online, Ms Telford says. “They would prefer not to have us knock at their door. At some homes we can’t get to the front door.”

In today's Canberra Times and Age

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