Federal Politics

EXCLUSIVE

Abbott government considers axing the Australian census to save money

The Abbott government is considering abandoning the Australian census and replacing it with a smaller sample survey in the upcoming budget.

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Why scrap the census?

Scrapping the census would save millions in the short term but could lead to costly mistakes in the longer term says Economics editor Peter Martin.

An Australian institution since 1911, the census surveys every household in the nation once every five years on the second Tuesday in August.

The most recent census, in 2011, marked 100 years of data collection, providing a century's worth of information about where Australians came from, where they lived, what type of families they had and how they worked.

Preparations for the next, Australia's first paperless census, have been underway for seven years.

Asked directly whether the 2016 census would go ahead as planned on August 9, a spokeswoman for the parliamentary secretary to the treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer read from a prepared statement.

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It said: "The government and the Bureau of Statistics are consulting with a wide range of stakeholders about the best methods to deliver high quality, accurate and timely information on the social and economic condition of Australian households."

Asked whether that was an answer to the question: "Will the census go ahead next year?" the spokeswoman replied that it was.   

In the vital Christmas month, retail sales grew by just 0.2 per cent.
In the vital Christmas month, retail sales grew by just 0.2 per cent. Photo: Louie Douvis

Abandoning the census at this late stage would waste years of preparation but would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 2011 census cost $440 million. The 2016 census was shaping up to be even more expensive because of the information technology requirements of moving to primarily electronic lodgement. Over time the change would save money as fewer collection agents and data entry staff were needed.

In an interview with Fairfax Media last week, the new head of the ABS David Kalisch said he needed several hundred million dollars to refresh the Bureau's aging technology systems.

Britain's Conservative government announced plans to axe its census five years ago, arguing that it was outdated and that better information could be obtained in cheaper ways.

After a parliamentary inquiry it reneged and agreed to allow the next census to go ahead in 2021. Britain conducts its censuses only once every 10 years.

Canada cancelled its compulsory census in 2010 and moved to a shorter voluntary survey. Statisticians testing the new data have described it as "garbage".

New Zealand is considering replacing its census, using so-called administrative data from organisations such as the tax office to determine its population. It is also considering conducting the census only every 10 years instead of the present five.

Australia's Bureau of Statistics is required by law to conduct the census every five years, so any change would require legislation.

Documents released under the Archives Act show both the Fraser and Keating governments considered axing the census to save money.

A spokesman for the ABS said planning for the 2016 census was on schedule. He later phoned back and said all inquires should instead be directed to the parliamentary secretary's office.

Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald said the census would be almost impossible to replace.

"It does what sample surveys cannot," he said. "It can track what is happening to comparatively small groups of people, such those born in particular countries. That can't be picked up by smaller surveys."

The biggest loss would be regional population information, he said.

"There is simply no other way of knowing how many people are in each town or suburb. Planners would be working without guidance. Over time it would be harder to know the size of the Australian population."

Ahead of the 2011 census the head of the population census program Paul Lowe argued that it was important for Australians to fill in their forms.

"It will shed some light on your community. Census information is used to allocate funding for critical infrastructure and services such as roads, schools, parks and hospitals." he said.

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