Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Less frequent census

Nicholas Biddle, The census matters – making it less frequent is a risky idea, The Conversation, 19 February 2015

p1938-census-ABS-logoIf reports are to be believed, both the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the federal government are strongly considering moving from a five-year to a ten-year census cycle.

This move has been on the cards for a little while, given major changes to the census in comparable countries (such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US) over recent years. Australia is a bit of an outlier in how often we conduct a census.

So, what might Australia gain from such a change? And what would it lose?

What is the census used for?

Ultimately, Australia uses the census for the allocation of seats in the lower house of federal parliament. We need to make sure that each MP represents roughly the same number of people. For that, we need population estimates.

But the census is also used to determine how the Commonwealth distributes funds to state and territory governments. For example, the number of Indigenous Australians in a given jurisdiction is used to allocate GST revenue. We can do this because the census provides reliable information about small population groups. The most recent Closing the Gap report relies heavily on census data to understand Indigenous employment and early childhood education.

The census is a vital resource for research purposes. For example, the ABS has recently developed the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset by linking censuses through time. This is a resource that is only just starting to be utilised and can shed light on dynamics and trends that aren’t available in smaller sample surveys.

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