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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 21/01/2005   
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The population census - a brief history

In 1905, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia passed the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (Cwlth) and in the following year the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS) was created. The census provided key information to determine the progress of the nation and to set priorities for change. Today, the census retains its importance despite the advent of household surveys capable of greater detail than a census. This is because surveys have significant weaknesses - they are unable to provide quality information about small population groups and small geographic areas and they require a benchmark of the size and composition of the population that can only be practically obtained from a census.

    It is the most important source of statistical information in the country... Without the statistical and other benefits of the census, planning and decision making affecting the lives and welfare of all Australians would be based on inadequate and incomplete data, resulting in many instances in a high level of waste and inefficiency in the allocation of material and human resources. (The Law Reform Commission, Privacy and the Census, Report No. 12, AGPS, 1979).

Early Australian censuses

Australia has a history of regular population stocktakes from the time of the first British settlement in Australia. From 1788 stocktakes occurred in the form of musters and victualling lists, maintained to control food stores. In 1828 Australia's first census was held in New South Wales. From then on regular censuses were held in New South Wales and, as they were established, in the other colonies.

In the mid-19th century the colonial statisticians encouraged compatibility between the colonies in their respective censuses, and in 1881 a census was held simultaneously in each of the colonies. When planning for the 1901 census it was clear that Federation was forthcoming, and a uniform census schedule was developed.

Table 5.71 is a time-line of key events in the history of the ABS conductiong censuses of the population over the past 100 years.


5.71 POPULATION CENSUS TIME-LINE
Census yearOther eventsMilestones

1901 - Federation of Australia
1911First national census developed by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS).
1914-18 - World War IRelease of 1911 census results delayed by World War I.
1915 - War census held'Personal Card' completed for males aged 18-59 and 'Wealth and Income Card' for persons aged 18 and over.
1921First use of mechanical tabulation.
1929 - New York Stock Exchange collapse1931 census postponed due to the Depression.
1933Census undertaken for information on the impact of the Depression.
1939 - War census held
1939-45 - World War II
'Personal Card' completed for males aged 18-64. National census postponed until after World War II.
1947'Bread winner' abandoned in favour of 'labour force'.
1954Census re-aligns with the 10-year cycle. International consultation undertaken.
19611961 - First computers introduced to CBCS.Last census to use mechanical tabulation. State of usual residence is included in the schedule. Sampling techniques used to analyse family data. Census results checked against the Labour Force Survey.
1966First computers used to process census results. First pretesting of the census form. Complete family and household coding introduced.
1967 - Referendum passes allowing Indigenous Australians to be legislated for by the Commonwealth Government.
1971Indigenous Australians included in the census count.
1975 - Australian Bureau of Statistics Act (Cwlth) creates an independent authority.
1976Australia's largest schedule. Census results processed as a 50% sample due to budgetary restraints.
1981Extensive publicity campaign. Remote Indigenous form developed. 'Any adult household member' introduced as 'Person 1' on the census schedule.
1986Field operations undertaken by ABS in Victoria and New South Wales, rather than the Electoral Commission. Persons temporarily absent used to code family type. Electronic products introduced (CD Rom and floppy disk).
1991Census date changes from 30 June to August to avoid school vacation periods. State offices of ABS manage all field operations. Optical Mark Recognition used to process forms.
1996Two-stage data release introduced.
2001Time Capsule Project allows optional retention of name-identified data for release in 2100. Intelligent Character Recognition used to process forms.

Source: ABS population census archives.


A national census in troubled times - 1911 to 1954

The first Australian national census occurred at midnight between 2 and 3 April 1911. Tabulation was carried out almost entirely by hand, with staff sorting over 4 million cards and physically counting them for each tabulation. Results from the 1911 census took a long time to release and were further delayed by World War I.

On two occasions in the first half of the 20th century, the census date itself was delayed by major events - the Depression and World War II. There were four Commonwealth censuses in the first half of the 20th century, compared with nine in the second half.

The 1921 census introduced automatic machine tabulation equipment, hired from England for the census. The next Australian census was held in 1933, delayed due to the Depression. The census due to be held in the early-1940s was also delayed, until 1947, this time by World War II. The year 1954 was chosen for the fifth census as a compromise, falling between 1951 and 1961.

Back on track - 1961 to 1976

The 1961 census put the 10-yearly cycle back on track and marked the Bureau's first attempt at obtaining a de jure measurement of the population (according to place of usual residence rather than place of enumeration). Five years later, the 1966 census was held, resulting in more accurate population estimates between census years.

The 1960s was a time of great change in the Bureau and this was reflected in several changes to the development and processing of the census. Pilot testing of the form occurred for the first time and full family and household coding was introduced. Computers were also introduced to process data, improving data quality and increasing the range of analysis possible.

In 1967 the Commonwealth held a referendum resulting in an amendment of the Constitution, removing the barrier to including Aboriginal people in the census publications. This allowed the Indigenous population to be included in the 1971 census count. For the 1971 census, the 'race' question was re-designed and methods for remote area collection examined to improve identification of Indigenous origin.

The 1976 census was the largest undertaken, with 53 questions. Due to budgetary restraints, the Bureau was not able to complete normal processing of the data and a 50% sample was processed.

In the 1970s there was public debate about privacy and the census. By 1976 the Treasurer had asked the Law Reform Commission to investigate and make any recommendations it thought necessary. One of the key elements under question was the inclusion of names. Excluding names was found to reduce the accuracy of the data, as individuals were more likely to leave questions blank and post-enumeration surveys would not be possible.

The modern census - 1981 to 2001

New procedures to enumerate Indigenous Australians were developed in 1981, including using Indigenous enumerators and a special form for Indigenous peoples in remote areas. The Bureau also moved from using 'Head of Household' to delineate household relationships to using 'Person 1', who could be any responsible adult.

In 1986 there was a change in census collection procedures with the Bureau taking over the management of New South Wales and Victoria from the Australian Electoral Commission, who had undertaken the distribution and collection of census forms for all censuses since 1921. This was so successful that the Bureau assumed responsibility for all states in subsequent censuses. Aside from a new ancestry question, there were also changes to the language spoken question allowing languages spoken in the home to be identified. A new question on family members temporarily absent allowed improvements in the coding of families.

For the 1991 census, the Bureau moved the date from 30 June to 6 August in order to be clear of all possible school holiday periods. Optical mark recognition was used to capture information on the forms, reducing the data entry required. Computer assisted coding was also used, reducing the coding load and improving consistency.

A two-stage release of data was introduced in 1996, with those topics that could be processed easily released first.

In 2001 each person was given the opportunity to choose to have their personal details preserved for release in 99 years. Over 50% of the Australian population chose to participate in the Time Capsule Project, and on 7 August 2100 their details will become available. The 2001 census used intelligent character recognition to capture details from the form, an improvement over the technology used in 1996 and 1991 where only tick box data could be automatically captured (table 5.72).


5.72 SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF CENSUSES
Census yearCensus date
Number of questions
Approximate number of temporary staff
Processing location
Processing technology
Release of data(a)



Personal
Dwelling
Total
'000
First data available
All data available

19112-3 April
14
5
19
8
Melbourne
Manual - Adding machines, 'Millionaire' multiplication
machines
1914
1917
19213-4 April
16
10
26
10
Melbourne
Mechanical tabulation
1921
1927
193330 June
18
6
24
11
Canberra
Mechanical tabulation
1933
1940
194730 June
13
9
22
12
Sydney
Mechanical tabulation
1948
1952
195430 June
14
8
22
13
Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane
Mechanical tabulation -
Automated card
punching
1954
1962
196130 June
15
8
23
15
Sydney
Mechanical tabulation - Automated sort,
calculate and punch
1961
1968
196630 June
24
9
33
20
Sydney
Computer
1967
1973
197130 June
24
14
38
n.a.
Sydney
Computer
1972
1975
197630 June
41
12
53
25
Sydney
Computer
1976
1980
198130 June
31
4
35
n.a.
Melbourne
Computer
1982
1984
198630 June
34
4
38
39
Sydney
Computer
1987
1991
19916 August
39
4
43
43
Sydney
Computer - Optical Mark Recognition
1992
1994
19966 August
40
7
47
40
Sydney
Computer - Optical Mark Recognition
1997
1998
20017 August
43
7
50
42
Sydney
Computer - Intelligent
Character Recognition
2002
2002

(a) Dates are based on available publication dates and may not be comprehensive.

Source: ABS population census archives.


The future of the census

One key change that can be expected is the use of the Internet in the census process. This has the potential to significantly reduce costs, as well as improving the quality of the data collected. Undertaking the census via the Internet may be possible by 2006.

The Census of Population and Housing seems to take on greater significance in terms of its value and uses with each iteration. As the demand for information grows within society, so does the significance of the census. In a world where information abounds and there are often several sources for similar information, there is still no source as comprehensive as a census.

References

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, The First Commonwealth Census, 3rd April 1911, Notes by G.H. Knibbs, 1911

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, taken for the night between the 2nd and 3rd April 1911, Statistician's Report, 1917

The Law Reform Commission, Privacy and the Census, Report No. 12, AGPS, 1979

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