2008.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Nature and Content, Australia, 2016  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 20/08/2015   
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Australia's seventeenth national Census of Population and Housing will be held on Tuesday, 9 August 2016. The first Census was held in 1911 and since 1961 they have been conducted every five years.

By counting the number and key characteristics of people in Australia on Census Night, the Census provides a reliable basis for the estimation of the population of the states, territories and local government areas, for use in:

      • determining the number of seats allocated to each state in the House of Representatives
      • distributing billions of dollars of annual goods and services tax revenue to the states and territories
      • determining state grants to local government areas.

These important uses are only part of the role of the Census. As well as key demographic characteristics such as age and sex, the Census collects information about the housing of people in Australia, and on other topics such as education, participation in the labour force, occupations and industries, marital status and family size. The range of topics included means that any particular topic can be examined in conjunction with other related topics. While some of the Census topics are covered by other sources, only the Census can currently provide information on a standard basis for the country as a whole as well as for small geographic areas and small population groups.

The Census helps Australians understand who we are, where we live and how we are changing. The Census in 2011 showed how culturally diverse Australia is, with over a quarter (26%) of Australia's population born overseas and a further one-fifth with at least one overseas-born parent. In 2011, Australia's population identified as having come from over 300 different ancestries. The 2011 Census also showed that more than two out of every five people aged 5 years and over had changed their residence since the 2006 Census (approximately 7.9 million people), with just over half a million people moving to a coastal centre.

The Census provides a comprehensive picture of Australians, at the national or state and territory level, and for a range of smaller geographic units including local government areas. This supports the planning, administration, policy development and evaluation activities of governments and other users.


The ABS has four goals for the 2016 Census. These are to:
      • count every dwelling and person in Australia
      • maximise the value of the Census to all users
      • protect the privacy of the public
      • increase the efficiency and sustainability of the Census.


The traditional approach to the Census involved the mobilisation of an increasing number of collectors across the country to deliver and collect forms from every dwelling. With 45,000 temporary employees in 2011, the Census has been characterised as Australia's largest peacetime operation. However, there are increasing difficulties in conducting the Census in this way. Recruiting the large number of staff required for the short-term field operation has become more difficult; and staff costs have escalated. In addition, collectors have had decreasing success in contacting people at their homes, perhaps reflecting the decline in the average number of people in each household, the larger proportion of the population that is in the workforce, and their more diverse working hours. Some dwelling types such as secure apartment buildings are particularly problematic for the delivery and collection of paper forms. In contrast, people increasingly have the capability and willingness to interact with Government electronically, using their mobile devices, tablets, laptops, or desktop computers.

A new approach to the Census has therefore been developed, with the aim of taking advantage of technology and maintaining coverage while reducing costs.

In August 2016, most households in Australia will receive a letter giving them a unique login number and instructions on how to complete the Census online. This is part of a new 'digital-first' approach for the 2016 Census. This approach has been made possible by the development of a national address register, that will act as a frame for the Census and other statistical collections, and is central to the new delivery procedures for the Census. Paper forms will still be made available to households that need them, and households will then mail the completed form back in pre-paid envelopes.

In some areas of Australia, including more rural areas and areas where a greater need for paper forms is expected, paper forms will be hand delivered, along with a unique login number.

About two-thirds of Australians are expected to respond online in 2016, doubling the online response rate of 33% in 2011. This would position Australia as one of the world leaders in online Census response and could be described as one of Australia's most significant online events in history.

A significant temporary workforce will still be employed to visit all dwellings that have not completed a Census form. As in previous Censuses this workforce will provide support and ensure participation of the full population.

This new approach will be over $100 million cheaper than the traditional approach would have been, reducing the cost to taxpayers.


The Australian Census continues to be one of the most comprehensive Censuses conducted anywhere in the world, with a long list of person and dwelling topics. A rigorous review and public consultation process of Census topics conducted by the ABS after the 2011 Census confirmed that there is strong support for each of the existing Census topics.

The consultation process also identified areas where there is an emerging need for new information. However, the addition of new topics to the Census would come with a considerable cost and burden on households, and at the expense of other data collected.

Consequently, the 2016 Census will continue to collect high quality information across the same comprehensive set of Census topics included in the past two Censuses.

The topics have been approved by the Australian Government and are described in detail elsewhere in this publication.


The ABS has conducted a number of activities to provide assurance regarding the 2016 Census direction and the organisation's preparedness for this Census. An international peer review by experts from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada, endorsed the new approach to the Census and their feedback has helped to refine planning. Testing of the approach has included annual Census Field Tests starting in 2012, conducted in various areas of Australia, which trialled a range of aspects of the delivery and collection model. There has also been cognitive testing which helped develop Census forms and other materials, and testing of the usability of the online form on various devices.


In 2016, people will again have the option to have their personally-identified Census responses held securely by the National Archives of Australia for 99 years before being released for use by future generations of family historians and other researchers. For privacy reasons, the personally-identified Census information held by the National Archives of Australia, will not be available for any purpose (including to courts and tribunals) within the 99 year closed access period. The Census form includes an optional question asking whether each person in the household agrees to have their information retained in this way. The majority of the Australian population choose to have their information added to the Time Capsule and the proportion has increased every Census since its introduction in the 2001 Census. For more information on this initiative, see the Census Time Capsule section in this publication.


Census testing will continue in 2015 on a number of fronts including refining the format of the online form; ensuring that the online form is useable on a very wide range of device sizes and types; and ensuring that the Census materials delivered to households encourage a predominantly online response.

Information on the proposed data products and services to be made available from the 2016 Census will be published on the ABS website later in 2015. How Australia Takes a Census (cat. no. 2903.0) will be published closer to the Census date. It will provide detailed information about the upcoming Census.


The ABS has commenced a five year program to modernise infrastructure, systems and processes used to produce critical statistics. This investment will help maintain the integrity of core ABS services, and ensure the ABS is well positioned to meet the information needs of today's dynamic economy and changing society.

The 2016 digital-first Census will be a launching pad for a transformation in the way the ABS collects and provides access to data about Australia's population into the future. The ABS aims to move to a more integrated approach with the continuous collection and compilation of data from both existing data sets and through a single, combined household survey program. These changes will be enabled by the knowledge within the Census program, and the establishment of a robust and high quality address register. The address register will provide the sampling frame for ABS household surveys and support higher quality data linkages.

The digital-first Census will improve and expand the information available to Australians, through integration of 2016 Census data with previous Censuses and other datasets and through the application of statistical methods to provide modelled estimates and area indexes.