The Census: a portrait of the nation

Knock knock

Like any family portrait, Tuesday’s census is likely to throw up its fair share of mad uncles pulling bunny ears and kids refusing to look into the camera. The last official “snapshot of the nation”, taken in 2006, turned up 58,053 Jedi Knights. At least one person, when asked their religion, stated “Moroccan Chicken”, the Bureau of Statistics revealed recently. Of the more than 400 languages spoken at home by Australians, 133 people in the 1996 census nominated an “invented language”.

Twelve people nominated “squid jigging” as their profession in the 2001 census, which, to be fair, could be true – the expression meaning simply squid farming. But according to the 2006 census, Australia has 670 parking inspectors, which can’t be true, because no one would admit to that.

Tuesday’s census is just the latest chapter in a long and colourful history of census taking in Australia. While the bureau is celebrating 100 years since its first national census in 1911, Australians have been regularly rounded up for “muster” since the days of the First Fleet.

Back then, the purpose was to ensure enough food supplies arrived to feed a growing population. Today, census data is used to distribute about $45 billion in GST funding to states. Local councils also use the information to determine the need for new roads, housing and public facilities.

Generations of civic-minded census collectors have beaten a path to our doors to undertake this important task, at no small risk to their personal safety. According to an unpublished Bureau of Statistics report in 1986, 9 per cent of collectors had been attacked by a dog. Even worse: “One collector was bitten by a horse … A few collectors were driven off by geese, two were pursued by pet emus, one was attacked by nesting plovers, and another had the misfortune to be chased by a large pig.”

In the early days, census collectors – all men – used horse-drawn sulkies to get about. After the 1954 census, one collector in rural Australia was called to account for why he’d taken so long to collect surveys. He explained in a letter how the loneliness of outback life meant most people were up for a chat: “Most required at least 30 minutes’ explanation as to why the census should be carried out. They gasp at the size of the form … They all have a joyful time getting each other’s ages. Mother usually won’t tell until she has made a cup of tea, or had a girlish giggle.”

Eventually, the benefit of having female collectors was appreciated. In 1971, the Australian Women’s Weekly noted how: “During the last census in 1966, women, most of them housewives, did such a marvellous job as collectors that officers of the bureau hope they’ll rally in force this time.”

These days, there is no corner of Australia these fearless collectors fear to tread. The Prime Minister’s census form has already been dropped off at the Lodge. Census forms were shipped to Antarctica in January so that scientists working for Australia’s Antarctic Division, including at Mawson’s Hut, will be counted. Ships and boats moored in ports and marinas can expect a visit. And 2950 kilometres to the north-west of Perth, residents of the Cocos Islands will receive a visit from collectors.

The fruit of their labours will help to inform government policy making for years to come. So sit up straight. Tony, stop pulling Julia’s hair. And everyone say cheese.

THE IRVINE INDEX

1400
Tonnes make up the total weight of materials used in this year’s Census – the equivalent of 670 family sedans.

5000
Kilograms of ink used to print this year’s Census forms.

29,000
Number of Census collectors employed to conduct this year’s survey.

9.8m
Number of households in Australia.

9
Per cent of Census collectors who, in 1986, reported they had been attacked by a dog while performing their duties.

$19
Cost per person of this year’s Census ($440 million all up).

30
Per cent of the population expected to use the eCensus option this year.

64
Per cent of Australians who said they were Christian in 2006, down from 96 per cent in the first Census in 1911.

2168
Number of Wiccans in NSW

Source: abs.gov.au/census

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