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The population census - a brief history
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.
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).
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.
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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