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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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THE CENSUS, THE CONSTITUTION AND DEMOCRACY

Dr Helen Irving

Helen Irving is the Director of the 1901 Centre, Federation Research and Resource Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). She is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at UTS. Dr Irving teaches Australian politics, and social and political theory. She holds Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Melbourne and Cambridge University respectively, and a PhD from the University of Sydney. Her publications include: 'To Constitute a Nation: A Cultural History of Australia's Constitution' (Cambridge University Press 1997-1999), author; 'A Woman's Constitution?: Gender and History in the Australian Commonwealth' (Hale & Iremonger 1996), editor; and 'The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation' (Cambridge University Press 1999), editor.


From the beginnings of white settlement in 1788, the Australian colonies collected statistics about the size and character of their populations. Better knowledge about populations, it was thought, would make for more effective government. At first this did not mean more democratic government. The original 'census' was simply a round-up or 'muster' of the convict population. The main purpose of these musters was to estimate the quantities of food and other supplies that were required to support the new colony. Musters tended to concentrate only on parts of the total population - convicts, free settlers or landowners - and only within certain areas of the colony.

Then the idea of collecting useful, broader information grew. In 1828, the first full census of New South Wales was held. From the mid-19th century on, most Australian colonies had regular censuses. Around this time, democratic rights to vote and stand for parliament began to be extended. As the population of citizens expanded and demands upon governments grew, it became increasingly important to keep track of numbers of people in electorates and to have a record of social and economic trends.

The first inter-colonial statistical conference took place in 1861. Twenty years later, the first simultaneous census was held across Australia. By the end of the 19th century, the census was associated with ways of calculating representation in the Parliament, in addition to assisting government decision making about the allocation of resources. The Australian colonies were among the most statistically advanced in the world, and were consulted by American and European authorities. History tells us that Australians were relaxed about participating in the census. Levels of trust and confidence in the uses of statistics were high.

In 1891 the first draft Commonwealth Constitution was written at a Federal Convention in Sydney. It was assumed from the start that census-collecting would be one of the functions of the new nation. This assumption was never challenged, either in 1891 or at the second Federal Convention, in 1897-98. In 1901 the new Commonwealth acquired the constitutional power to make laws concerning the 'census and statistics', through section 51 (xi) of the Constitution.

The only debate in the Conventions over the census concerned whether to include tribal Aborigines in a calculation of the population of the Commonwealth. The debate concluded with section 127 of the Constitution which said that, 'in reckoning' the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth or of a State, the 'Aboriginal natives' should not be counted. This did not mean that no records of the Aboriginal people were kept. The section was introduced principally so that the numbers of Federal politicians per State, as well as per capita Commonwealth grants, would be based on the total population of Europeans and assimilated part-Aboriginal people. This section was removed from the Constitution following a referendum in 1967.

The census and statistics found their way into other parts of the Constitution. Because the populations of the States are very uneven, it is important to have an equitable way of determining the number of Members in the House of Representatives to which each State is entitled. Section 24 of the Constitution sets out the means of calculating an individual State's 'quota', using 'the latest statistics of the Commonwealth'. Using statistics in this way, and making sure that only the most up-to-date information is employed, underpins the relationship between statistics and the processes of representative democracy. It affirms the principle that representation should be fair and personal. It assists governments in responding to the needs of electorates.

Section 24 is one of the most important sections in the Constitution. It requires the House of Representatives to be 'directly chosen' by the people. These words, the High Court has found, provide a guarantee of representative democracy and free political communication throughout Australia. This guarantee is assisted by the use of statistical information in ensuring that representation is apportioned fairly.

For the first decade after Federation, the States continued to collect census statistics individually. The first Commonwealth collection took place in 1911, following the establishment in 1905 of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics and the position of Commonwealth Statistician. This work received international attention. Australia was an early pioneer of democracy. It was also a pioneer in population statistics. Their link is an important part of Australia’s history and stands as one of the building-blocks of our constitutional system.


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