Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On the potential demise of the quinquennial census of Australia

The Guardian's Oliver Milman reported last month that the Australian Bureau of Statistics might reduce the frequency of national census-taking. At present, an Australian census is held every five years, the most recent being in 2011. The plan to shift to a ten-year census cycle, with frequent surveys in between censuses to maintain data, is apparently quite controversial, for the same sort of reasons that I recognize in Canada in the debate over the long-form census. I do admit to wondering if a five-year census is practical, but I also admit to envying Australia its thorough data-collection processes.

The compilation of the 2016 census is in doubt, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in talks with the federal government over changes to the mass data collection exercise.

The ABS is understood to favour a shift to taking a full census once every 10 years, rather than every five years, bringing Australia into line with the US and Britain.

In the interim, the ABS would conduct smaller sample surveys on a quarterly basis to provide information on Australia’s demographics.

The ABS’s last census was in 2011, deploying 29,000 people to record the details of people living in Australia.

[. . .]

The ABS is required by an act of parliament to conduct a census every five years, and the results are used to frame various policy and spending decisions, meaning a change in the law would be required to switch to the 10-year model.

The Community and Public Sector Union said a $78m cut to the budget of the ABS over the past two years has resulted in 10% of staff leaving and the remaining workforce deals with “antiquated” computer systems.

“The news that the census might be cut or scaled back is deeply disturbing and will send shockwaves throughout the community,” said a union spokesman, Alistair Waters. “It is the bedrock of much of what the ABS does and it plays a vital role in business and society.

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