The 2011 census night has been and gone, and brought with it considerable discussion in the media about its value. How are the questions devised? How do the answers given by Australians help policy formulation? And most importantly, given the entire operation costs around $440 million and census data is used to direct funding and infrastructure, does the information received truly reflect Australian society? Concerns about inadequate questioning and social inclusion of minorities, coupled with the lags between census dates, have led to suggestions for new ways to map Australia's demographics.
In the Australian Financial Review on the 9th of August (census night), Andrew Leigh argued that the very questions asked in the census reflect Australian society. Arguably, the questions that are added or subtracted at each subsequent census in turn reflect the evolution of Australian values. The inclusion in 2006 of a question regarding hours spent in unpaid labour – childcare, disability care or housework – reflects an increasing awareness of the undocumented contributions many Australians, often women, make to the nation's economy.
In the 2011 census, although no new questions have been added, the ABS will recognise for the first time the marriages of same-sex couples that married overseas. The census itself seems to be increasingly capable of reflecting progressive attitudes throughout Australia.
But the value of the knowledge gained is another matter altogether. Joke answers on the census are well documented – as of 2006 there were 55,000 Jedi Knights living in Australia – but there are serious concerns about the accuracy of the information gleaned, and the way in which that information is used. Craig Wallace, a disability support activist, decries the fact that the census seems to tiptoe around difficult questions about disabilities.
While the census asks people to indicate if they require carers, it avoids asking point blank if they have a disability. As a result, no comprehensive information is collected about the location and needs of the disabled, and disability advocates argue the issue is framed in terms of how disabilities impact on others, and not on sufferers themselves. It seems that the creators of the census are too scared of being considered offensive to ask the questions that will actually help with allocation of funds and policy formation.
Similar criticism surrounds the adequate inclusion of ethnic minorities and indigenous Australians in the census, with leading or culturally insensitive questions that may not allow proper expression of their identities or values as they see them. It is also claimed that flawed wording of the question regarding religion may lead to the extent of religious belief in Australia being overstated.
And then, of course, the census is only collected once every five years, so much of the pertinent information collected is wildly out of date by the time anyone wishes to use it.
So perhaps it is time, despite the laudable capacity of the census to (somewhat) move with the times, to consider whether there are other cheaper and more accurate ways of gaining the same information the census attempts to provide.
The U.K. is considering a shift toward cheaper, more frequently collected census alternatives, although it has not yet scrapped the census altogether. However, future censuses in the U.K. are under review. The Cabinet Office is considering using alternatives such as the electoral roll, NHS data, and benefits claims lists to create comprehensive population data in 'real time'.
In the U.S., questions about income, age, sex, marital status, race and disabilities have been removed from the nation-wide census conducted every 10 years and shifted into a yearly survey of 3 million randomly sampled participants. This survey is cheaper and more frequent than the census, while still drawn from a representative sample of the population.
Even in Australia, the census in its current incarnation is not strictly necessary to gain information about Australians. If, for example, we wished to determine average household income, we would have several options aside from the census.
The HILDA (Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia) survey collects information about incomes, households, the labour market and overall wellbeing from paid respondents yearly. In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts a biennial Survey of Income and Housing (SIH) that covers around 98 per cent of housing options. Either or both of these surveys would give more up-to-date information than the census in most instances.
Therefore, given that the census is neither strictly necessary to gain information about the population nor particularly accurate in many of the answers it solicits, it may be time to consider alternatives that address these two issues. It may be the case that a nation-wide survey is necessarily less specific than many researchers and respondents would like, due to its sheer size.
A more efficient way of collecting accurate data would be a greater number of smaller, more targeted, and more in-depth individual surveys of specific demographics, collated into a single report. Given that many of these surveys exist already, the census would appear to be an exercise in redundancy.