ACT News

License article

Compliant lot when it comes to census

There's nothing like a sense of continuity to keep acts of national duty alive, even when such acts are as mundane as filling in a form.

And it seems Australians are more than happy to spend an evening filling out a form, if our census data over the years is any indication.

Tomorrow is Australia's 16th census, and marks 100 years since the first truly national census was held.

But while the last census, in 2006, showed we're a dutiful lot, with 97.3per cent of Australia's population counted, we've certainly come a long way since the first collectors were sent out on horseback to collect data on the country's 4.5million inhabitants.

Collectors in 1911 - all 7300 of them - were expected to provide fodder for their horses, and had a clause built into their contracts stipulating that they be sober.

Nowadays, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has hired about 43,000 collection staff, who will be paid $18 an hour plus a petrol allowance.


Sobriety, it seems, is a given.

Back in the early days, the data was collected and then compiled almost entirely by hand, with staff sorting more than four million forms according to the answers from a question, adding up the numbers, and then re-sorting them according to the next question.

Today, we can fill in our forms online, and data is compiled electronically, but in many ways the process hasn't changed, with armies of collectors delivering and collecting forms in person, mainly on foot.

The nature of the information required, however, has changed fundamentally over the years.

Today, the data collected is used in countless areas of funding, planning, community services and infrastructure.

But questions about income were considered taboo between the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1976, and it wasnt until 1981 that fertility trends became of interest, with the first question on the total number of children a woman had given birth to.

In 1911, Canberra didnt exist, and our first census, in 1921, indicated that there were around 2500 official inhabitants.

Today, we're a population of more than 360,000, and we're leading the way with the electronic version of the forms, introduced as a trial in 2006.

The 1911 census asked whether respondents were subjects of the British Empire, and whether they could read or write, in contrast to the high levels of university education and the 250 ancestries and 400 languages spoken at home today.

And don't forget this will only be the ninth census to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the official population count.

Finally, lest people fail to grasp the magnitude of this latest census, the ABS has been happy to bow to our everlasting penchant for having things measured comparatively and sorted into data.

For example, the total weight of paper used to create the 2011 census forms and collector record books is roughly equivalent to 524 family sedans.

For those who prefer to see things in linear terms, consider this: if you placed the individual sheets in the forms end-to-end, they would stretch 41,279km, which is more than enough to stretch around the equator.