2903.0 - How Australia Takes a Census, 2011  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/04/2011   
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The first population counts of Australia were known as musters and were conducted 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. From 1795 the convict population was mustered on an annual basis. The first of the Censuses 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 colonial population figures for the same day although the questions were not uniform across all colonies.


A Census conference held in Sydney on 26 February 1900 arranged for an Australian Census to be conducted on a uniform basis. The 'Federation Census' was 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 coordinating authority to bring the results together to form a total for Australia.

Census and Statistics Act

To provide greater coordination, 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).

National Censuses

Since 1911 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 1905 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. The year 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 resumed from 1961 onwards.

Every Five Years

Following the 1961 Census, Australia has had a Census taken every five years, a practice which became 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 are prescribed'.

Which Date?

In selecting a Census date the ABS aims to select a date which minimises the proportion of the population who are not at their usual place of residence. In 1911 and 1921, a Census date near the beginning of April was selected. For the 1933 Census through to the 1986 Census, the Census date was moved to be at, or near, the end of June.

In 1991, the Census date was moved to early August, after all mainland states changed from a three term to a four term school year with school holidays falling near the end of June. School holidays on, or close to, the Census date increase collection difficulties and reduce the quality of data obtained, as many people are absent from their usual place of residence.

The date which has been specified for the 2011 Census is Tuesday, 9 August.