Statement on the 2016 Australian Census – Released on 8 August 2016
The Statistical Society of Australia is concerned that the current controversies surrounding the 2016 Census may impact upon the quality of the data collected and may be raising unnecessary fears in the community.
Australia is fortunate to have a history of highly regarded Censuses, amongst the best in the world. This has come about through the highly professional work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and has meant that the Census results have never been seriously questioned as they have been in many other countries, including leading countries such as the USA. Governments and the community rely upon and use data from the Census in many ways, perhaps more widely than many people realise. For example, the standard measures used to identify places of disadvantage and social need are all based upon the Census.
The ABS has had a history of being highly protective of the confidential information it collects, even before the current legislation that makes it clear that confidentiality is paramount. For many years it has collected names and addresses, so that field staff can check returns in initial stages of processing; these are not retained. The ABS already has systems in place to manage that information and keep it confidential. What is new is not the collection of names and addresses, but the retention of returns with identifying names and addresses for a longer time, and in that time use it to create more comprehensive and useful data sets by linking to other data, including previous Censuses.
As statisticians we recognise the potential value of more comprehensive data sets to enable better decision making in government. This can be to the benefit of all. We understand that access to this more comprehensive data will be subject to the same or stronger restrictions that are currently applied.
The Statistical Society of Australia is concerned that these changes, brought in with the 2011 Census and repeated in 2016, and that have many potential benefits, have not been handled well. In particular, the public whose cooperation is critical for a successful Census does not appear to have been adequately involved, and the reasons for the changes are even now not well publicised. This is an issue of transparency where the ABS needs to do better.
The Statistical Society of Australia hopes that the Australian public fully engages with the Census on 9th August 2016. The Society also hopes that the ABS adopts an approach of taking the community into its confidence in explaining what it is doing and why.
Download a pdf of this media release here.