History of the ABS

A Brief History of Australia's National Statistical Office

Timeline of the ABS (multimedia presentation)

Media Release - Australia's statistical history revealed
In 1901, statistics were collected by each state, for their individual use. While attempts were made to coordinate collections through an annual Conference of Statisticians, it was quickly realised that the fledgling nation would require a National Statistical Office to develop nationally comparable statistics. The Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (CBCS) was established under the Census and Statistics Act in 1905, with Sir George Knibbs appointed the first Commonwealth Statistician. Initially the Bureau was located in Melbourne and was attached to the Department of Home Affairs. In 1928 the Bureau was relocated to Canberra and in 1932 it moved to the Treasury portfolio.

Initially the states maintained their own Statistical Offices and worked together with the CBCS to produce national data. However some states found it difficult to resource a state statistical office to the level required for an adequate statistical service. In 1924 the Tasmanian Statistical Office transferred to the Commonwealth. Interestingly, four of the following six Commonwealth Statisticians appointed after that time, were Tasmanians. Unification of the state statistical offices with the CBCS was finally achieved in the late 1950s under the stewardship of Sir Stanley Carver, who was both NSW Statistician and Acting Commonwealth Statistician.

In 1974, the CBCS was abolished and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) established in its place. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Act in 1975, established the ABS as a Statutory Authority headed by the Australian Statistician with the status of Permanent Head, responsible to the Treasurer.

Other key events which have shaped the development of statistics and the Australian Bureau of Statistics include:
    • The introduction of the cadet scheme in the late 1950s which produced employees uniquely suited to the Bureau's work.
    • The introduction of computers to the Bureau in the 1960s. This had a fundamental impact on the number and size of collections that it was now possible to undertake. It also allowed for more complicated statistical methods such as sample surveys.
    • The introduction of sampling methods to the Bureau allowed for less labour-intensive collections and thus paved the way for a greater number of statistical collections including more social statistics through household surveys.

The ABS has published a history of the Bureau for our Centenary in 2005. An abstract entitled
Building a National Statistical Agency: From the CBCS to the ABS is available. Or alternatively, the full publication Informing a nation: the evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics is available on this site.