2900.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Understanding the Census and Census Data, Australia , 2016  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 08/11/2017  First Issue
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Understanding the data

This chapter provides background information to enable greater understanding when using and interpreting 2016 Census data. It provides information about changes to the questions on the Census form; where changes in the data have emerged as a result of the different collection method, and detailed quality statements for each of the Census data items. It also provides information on some key Census concepts, including the difference between a person’s place of enumeration and their place of usual residence, and the geographical classification used to disseminate Census data.

Question changes in 2016

Changes were made to some of the questions asked in the 2016 Census. These changes were implemented to make the form easier to complete and to optimise the quality of the data produced. Some of the more notable changes are outlined below, however, full details about question changes can be found in Census of Population and Housing: Nature and Content, Australia, 2016.


The default question in the 2016 Census asked people whether they were male or female, however, special procedures were introduced to enable people to report as neither male nor female on both the paper and online forms. Information on these procedures were available on the online Census form, on the ABS website, and from the Census Inquiry Service.

Analysis of the responses received from people who identified as neither male nor female will be made available in an analytical article published under Reflecting Australia: Stories from the Census, 2016.


For the Censuses between 1991 – 2011 no religion was the last response category in the question. On the 2016 Census form, the no religion category was placed at the top of the list of responses for the question. The order of response options for all questions are reviewed before each Census. The ABS tries to put the most commonly reported response option at the top in order to make the Census form easier and quicker to complete. Increases in reporting of ‘no religion’ in 2011 meant that this was the second most reported option, and likely to become the most reported option in 2016.

This change was made following the 2016 Census topic review process, where many submissions recommended changes to the Religious affiliation question due to perceived bias in the question format and consequent potential underestimates of the number of people who stated they had no religion.

After user consultation and testing, the ABS decided to move the ‘No religion’ response category to be the first response category in the question, so it will be more consistent with other questions and the order of their response categories. This approach is consistent with that of a number of other countries.

Country of birth of parents

The questions asking about the country of birth of a person’s parents were amended to request respondents to provide details of the specific country of birth (where it is not Australia). In previous Censuses, the question had a generic 'overseas' category however consultation with key users of the data during the 2016 Census topic review showed opportunity for a greater understanding of the heritage and ancestries of Australia's population through changes to the questions.


The layout of the ancestry question was changed for the 2016 Census, providing two distinct areas in which people could write an ancestry that was not one of the pick box ancestries. This change aimed to clarify responses and improve autocoding rates and data quality. In previous Censuses, when writing more than one ancestry in a single area, people tended to add marks such as backslashes or hyphens between them, which made the entries fail autocoding and left the intended answer unclear.

Targeted supplementary questions

Targeted supplementary questions, asking more specialised questions based on previous responses, were included on the online form to obtain better quality fine-level data for occupation and industry.

New variables

Four new variables have been added to the suite of available data items in the output.

  • Housing Suitability (HOSD) and Engagement in Employment, Education and Training (EETP) have been derived from existing data items
  • Status in Employment (SIEMP) has replaced Employment Type (EMTP)
  • An imputation flag has been added for the sex variable (IFSEXP)

Details on the new data items can be found in the 2016 Census Dictionary.

Inclusion of Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island was included in the Australian Census for the first time following passage of the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Act, 2015. Amendments to the geographical classification used with the Census, and to some standard classifications relating to cultural diversity, have been made as a consequence of this change.

Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS)

The 2016 Census uses the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS) as the basis for disseminating data, which was introduced for the 2011 Census. For the 2011 Census, data was also available for Statistical Local Areas (SLAs), the basic unit from the geographic classification used in 2006, to enable time series comparison. This was a transitional arrangement and will not be available in 2016.

Mesh Blocks (MBs) are the base unit of output geography for the ASGS and will aggregate to form the higher level units in the main structure of the ASGS.
For further information see the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS): Volume 1 - Main Structure and Greater Capital City Areas, July 2016

Place of enumeration versus place of usual residence

A person’s place of enumeration is the place at which they were counted i.e. where they were on Census night. This type of count provides a snapshot in any given area, and whilst the Census is timed to attempt to capture the typical situation, holiday areas such as the Gold Coast and snow fields may show a large enumeration count compared with the usual residence count.

A person’s place of usual residence is the place at which they usually reside. Census counts compiled on this basis are less likely to be influenced by seasonal factors such as school holidays and snow seasons, and provide information about the usual residents of an area. Census usual residence data is used as the basis of forming the Estimated Resident Population, Australia’s official population count.

For more information about Place of enumeration and place of usual residence, please refer to the glossary of the 2016 Census Dictionary.

Census and the Estimated Resident Population

The table below outlines the difference between counts from the Census and the official ABS population estimates published in Estimated Resident Population (ERP).

Census Place of Enumeration Count
Census Usual Residence Count
Estimated Resident Population
Type of count
A count of all people across Australia on Census night, based on the dwelling in which they completed a Census form.
A count of all people across Australia on census night who indicated in the Census that they are usually resident in Australia, based on the usual address provided.
The official ABS estimate of the population that is resident in Australia, derived from several data sources.
Reference date
Tuesday 9th August 2016
Tuesday 9th August 2016
Quarterly - 31 March, 30 June, 30 September, 31t December

Inclusions and exclusions

Overseas visitors
Adjusted using results from the Post Enumeration Survey
Australian residents temporarily overseas
Demographically adjusted (age and sex)
Adjusted for births and deaths
Adjusted for net overseas and interstate migration
Includes other territories such as Norfolk Island and Jervis Bay, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands