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The controversial proposal to axe the 2016 census has originated from the Bureau of Statistics rather than the Abbott government, the bureau has revealed.
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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.
The ABS has asked the government to legislate to remove the requirement that it conduct a census every 5 years and replace it with a requirement to conduct the survey only once every 10 years as happens in Britain and the United States.
The bureau has spent more than a year developing means of producing accurate population information without a census and is at the stage where it believes it can accurately update state populations every three months and smaller populations every year.
Asked how the bureau would be able to provide sufficiently accurate population information without surveying the entire population, the head of the ABS David Kalisch said he wasn't in a position to say.
But he said he believed the bureau could produce high quality data on the population of Australian states every three months instead of every five years.
"The census only provides a snapshot of Australia for one day every five years, and it also takes some time for the information to be released after census night; a minimum of 10 months for some of the very basic information, but then for some of the very detailed info it's two to three years later," Mr Kalisch said.
"When you are looking at population numbers for local government or business planning, often the time between getting contemporary information from the census and having to make business decisions means there have been very big changes."
Appointed only in December, Mr Kalisch has inherited an organisation running on a dual track. For the past year it has been both preparing a case for abandoning the 2016 census and preparing to conduct it.
Fairfax Media understands that it is well behind schedule and unable to deliver the census without cutting its size or compromising its quality.
The ABS wants to use much of the money that would have been used for the 2016 census to modernise its computing systems, some of which are up to 40 years old and need specialised knowledge to maintain.
The 2011 census cost $440 million. It employed 29,000 census collectors making it what the bureau described at the time as Australia's largest ever peace-time operation.
Delaying the census would only be possible if the Census and Statistics Act was amended by Parliament. The Act requires the bureau to conduct a census every 5 years. The last was in 2011.
Mr Kalisch stressed that the Bureau was not asking the government to axe the census altogether, merely to make it less frequent. New Zealand is also considering moving from a five-yearly to a ten-yearly census.
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