Robin Tennant Wood

Professional Services - Research & Writing

The five-yearly national census is almost upon us and for the past few weeks social media has been rife with the usual conspiracy-related calls censusformfor citizens to boycott it or to provide untrue information.

The data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics via the census is vital to social researchers. It provides us with a snapshot of the nation’s population and enables us to map longitudinal changes in society at the macro level.
For example, if we look at the issue of poverty, without census data social and economic researchers would be unable to determine the number of people in Australia living in poverty; where, geographically, the problem is greatest; the types of employment and education levels where people are affected by poverty; how many children are living in poverty; the possible causes of poverty; and the most pressing needs of those affected in terms of healthcare, housing, education and urban amenity.  These are all important questions that need to be answered if we are to address them in any meaningful way.

Census data allows us to build up a demographic picture of our population. How will we be able to cater for an ageing population if we have no idea of our life expectancy, health and aged care needs, and the numbers of people in each age bracket? How can we assess the future of our cities if we have no idea of the rate of growth in certain areas?

positive and negative effects of urbanisation copyOne concerning piece of conspiracy theoriing about the census surrounds the question of religion. A particular group is circulating a statement calling on white Australians to list their religion as Christian (or a Christian denomination) even if they do not subscribe to any religious belief. The reason given is that “all” the Muslims in Australia will list their religion as Muslim and before long Australia will be declared a Muslim country.

This statement is so patently ridiculous that it’s difficult to know where to start, but suffice to say it comes straight out of the Pauline Hanson playbook of white supremicism. Do you know how many Muslims there are in this country? Hmm? Around 382,000, or about 2% of the entire population. There were more Jedis than Muslims at the last census. How do I know this? Census data. Furthermore, even if the entire Australian population converted to Islam tomorrow, Australia can never be “declared a Muslim nation” (or, for that matter, a Jedi nation) because constitutionally this country is secular.

If you do not subscribe to a religious belief, please, for the sake of we social researchers, tick the “no religion” box. It’s how we map changing social trends.

The other conspiracy theory is that our names will now be kept by the ABS for four years instead of the usual 18 months. Privacy advocates are concerned that this will enable an all-seeing government to spy on our data. I hate to be the harbinger of bad news here, but if you have a Medicare card, a drivers’ license, a pension or welfare card, an ABN or a tax file number, the government already knows everything it needs to know about you.

The ABS uses names in order to longitudinally map changes at the micro level. Changes in levels of education, health needs, how long we stay at addresses, partnership and marriage changes. Did you know that on average, Australians move house every eight years and we tend to move to new addresses less than 5kms away from the previous one? How do I know this? Census data. Did you know that the median length of a relationship (marriage or defacto) in Australia is 18.3 years? Census data.

If you have genuine concerns about the use of your name on the census, there is a space on the last page where you can request that your personal data is not kept by the Australian Archives. If you have a genuine concern about the religion question, really, forget it. That thing on the internet is nothing but racist garbage. Just fill in the form with your correct information. Please. For the sake of those of us who rely on it for the research that, we hope, will make Australia a better place.

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