2903.0 - How Australia Takes a Census, 1996  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 30/04/1996   
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Contents >> History



The first population counts of Australia were known as musters and were made as early as 1788. Musters involved all members of the community gathering at specified locations to be counted. These were important as a means of matching food and other supplies to the number of people needing them. The first census in Australia as we now know them was held in New South Wales in November 1828. Each of the colonies conducted their own censuses until 1886.
On 3 April 1881, the first simultaneous census of the British Empire covering the United Kingdom, India and the Crown Settlements (including Australia) was taken. This census produced the first set of colony population figures for the same day.

A census conference held in Sydney on 26 February 1900 arranged for an Australian census conducted on a uniform basis to be taken on
31 March 1901. Minor differences in the interpretation of definitions arose between the States and the method of presentation of the results differed considerably. The responses to the census questions were not tabulated in all cases and there was no co-ordinating authority to bring the results together to form a total for Australia.


To provide greater co-ordination, the Census and Statistics Act 1905 was passed on 8 December 1905. This Act provided: that 'the census shall be taken in the year 1911, and in every tenth year thereafter'; and 'the census day shall be a day appointed for that purpose by proclamation'.

On 18 June 1906, the first Statistician of the Commonwealth of Australia was appointed to carry out the provisions of the Act. Later in the same year the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was formed (re-named the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1975).


Since 1911, therefore, the census has been a centralised activity conducted and controlled by the Australian Statistician under the authority of an Act of Parliament to ensure uniformity in the census methods and data collected from each State, and to protect the confidentiality of information gathered.

Due to the economic depression it was considered inappropriate to conduct the scheduled Census of 1931, so the Census and Statistics Act was amended to allow a census to be held at any such time as prescribed. Under the amended Act the next census was held in 1933. No census was held during the period of World War II and the first post-war census was taken in 1947, after an interval of 14 years. Theyear 1954 was chosen for the next census, it being a seven year interval and equidistant between the 1947 Census and the then proposed 1961 Census. The practice of conducting a census in at least the first year of each decade was therefore resumed from 1961 onwards.


Following the 1961 Census, Australia has had a census taken every five years, a practice which has now become mandatory with the amendment to the Census and Statistics Act in 1977 requiring that 'the census shall be taken in the year 1981 and in every fifth year thereafter, and at such other times as prescribed'.


In selecting census day the ABS endeavours to choose a date when there is minimum displacement of population. In 1911 and 1921, a census day near the beginning of April was selected. Census day was then changed to a date at or near the end of June for the 1933 Census through to the 1986 Census. In those years the June date better fulfilled the condition mentioned and was otherwise suitable, being the end of the fiscal year and of a quarterly period used extensively for statistical purposes.

In 1991, Census day was moved to August. The June date was no longer practical as all mainland States now have a four-term school year and have school holidays around this time. School holidays in the period surrounding Census day would increase collection difficulties and reduce the quality of data obtained, as many people would be absent from their normal residence and more likely not to be enumerated.

In 1996, Census day is Tuesday, 6 August.


Since the first national census in 1911, the content of censuses has varied. Many topics have been included in each census in that time (for example, age, marital status and religion) whereas others have come and gone or been introduced recently depending on the importance of the topic at the time. To see how census
content has evolved over the years refer to Appendix 1.

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