Opinion piece: It’s time to make census of all your answers

Australian Treasury

The world’s first census took place in 3800 BCE. The Babylonians counted the number of people, animals, and stocks of valuable foodstuffs, such as butter, honey and wool.

Almost 6000 years later, Australians are about to learn the results of our latest census. Taken in August 2021, at a time when much of the country was in lockdown, the Census provides a snapshot of how the country has changed.

This year, we’ll get a count of the total population, and find out which areas are growing and shrinking. The results will affect Commonwealth grants to states and territories. Census population figures help decide where federal electorates need to be created and abolished.

What’s new this time around? This Census marked the 50th anniversary of full inclusion of Indigenous Australians, which first took place in the 1971 Census. In recent years, the number of Indigenous Australians has been growing faster than the population overall, and we’ll get to see whether this trend has continued.

For the first time, the 2021 Census also asked people whether they have served in the military. Better understanding our veteran community will provide a window into the lives of those who have served Australia in uniform, and how we can better support veterans.

Another new question asks about long-term health conditions. This will provide a window into those who are experiencing the debilitating effects of conditions such as arthritis, cancer, dementia and heart disease. These numbers will shape how we help people with chronic conditions. As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured gets managed’.

And then there’s the long-term trends. I’m personally fascinated to see what’s happened to the home ownership rate, and whether the top religion will again be ‘no religion’.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ tagline for the 2021 Census is ‘Every stat tells a story’. Historically, the Australian Census has led to remarkable stories. The 1911, 1921 and 1933 Censuses found a pattern in the data on deaf-mutism (as it was known then) in a specific age cohort of young people. Analysis by ophthalmologist Norman McAllister Gregg and statistician Oliver Lancaster led to discovery of the link between rubella and congenital problems in unborn children.

Or there was the 1947 Census, which was the only Census ever to ask if a dwelling had access to a flushing toilet. In case you’re curious, 52 per cent of dwellings had a flushing toilet, though 3 per cent shared theirs with a neighbour.

In more recent times, the 2016 Census showed how multicultural Australia had become. In that year, 50 per cent of Australians said that they were a first or second generation migrant.

As the assistant minister responsible for the Census, a former economics professor, and an enduring stats nerd, I love the Census. It helps us better understand the nation, and provides rich insights into individual communities. You filled it in – and tomorrow you’ll get to find out what it reveals.

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