100 Years and counting
Ever since its humble beginning, the Census has always played an important role in Australian society. The Census shows us not only the progress and change that is occurring within the nation but also the nature and rate of this progress. Population estimates based on the Census are vital in determining the population size of each state and territory, and designing equitable boundaries for electoral districts. In this way the Census is vital to the practical application of democracy and has also been a major element in determining the allocation of federal funding to the states and territories.
Although regular stocktakes of the population occurred in Australia during colonial times, the first Census after federation occurred in 1901 when it was run separately by each state. However, it wasn't until 1911 that we would have our first integrated, national census, made possible through the Census and Statistics Act 1905. Close to 7,300 collectors and enumerators were employed for collection work on this initial census, some of whom travelled on horseback to cover their allocated areas. Information from this first census would eventually be used to uncover a link between rubella and congenital problems for unborn children by combining 1911 data with information from the 1921 and 1933 censuses. The 1933 Census was originally due to be held in 1931, but due to the depression the decision was made to delay the census.
In addition to regular Censuses the Bureau has also conducted two 'war censuses'. The first was conducted in July of 1915 and the second in July of 1939. The aim of these censuses was determine the availability of manpower and the nation's wealth. The next conventional census wouldn't be conducted until 1947 due to delays resulting from World War II.
For the development of the 1954 Census other international organisations, including the statistical office of the United Nations, would be consulted for the first time. The 1961 Census was the last to use mechanical tabulation with the 1966 Census seeing the introduction of the first computers used to process census results. It would also mark the introduction of censuses being conducted every 5 years as opposed to every 10 years as was first planned.
Following the introduction of legislation from the referendum of 1967, the 1971 Census would be the first time all Indigenous Australians were included in published census counts. Major changes were made to the number and manner of questions included on Census forms for the Censuses of 1976 and 1981. The 1976 Census was also unique for the fact that only 50% of its results were processed due to budgetary constraints. Many of the changes that were made to the Census form prior to the 1981 Census occurred as a result the ABS conducting more public consultation than any previous Census. This was seen as a major factor in the success of the 1981 Census.
Then in 1986, a range of new dissemination channels, including diskettes and CD-ROMs, were used for data release. In 1991 optical mark recognition technology was used in the processing of census forms. That year also saw the first release of Census Update to users of Census information. A two stage release process was utilised for the first time in the 1996 Census. This resulted in data being released within 12 months after the Census, a significant improvement on previous years.
The most recent Census occurred in 2001. For this Census Australians were given the option of whether they wanted to be part of the Time Capsule Project and have their details preserved for release in 99 years. Over 50% of the population chose to be a part of this project, with their records now safely preserved in the vaults of the National Archives.
In future years, one area of significant development will be the collection of Census information via the Internet.
As part of its centenary celebrations, later this year the ABS will be publishing a detailed history of the organisation. Not only of interest to former ABS and Census staff, it will also be a valuable record of the development of a great Australian institution.
The publication will include a chapter dedicated entirely to the history of Australia's Census of Population and Housing. The chapter documents the history of censuses in Australia from the early colonial musters to the most recent Census conducted in 2001 and includes a discussion on the evolving role and benefits that the Census provides to Australian society through actual case studies. It also features a comprehensive look at the reasons for changing the questions on the Census form, and the differing collection and processing methods and dissemination techniques that the ABS has elected to adopt for Census data. It also identifies the policies and events that have impacted upon the different aspects of the Census.
A Snapshot of Australia, 1901-2001
In celebration of Australia's Centenary of Federation in 2001, this snapshot includes data from the Censuses of Australian States in 1901, along with generally comparative data from the 2001 Census.
This page last updated 23 July 2007