The census enables Australian researchers and policymakers to understand what’s going on across the country in everything from inequality to child health. It helps governments decide where money needs to be spent. Leading policymakers and analysts are concerned a boycott might result in patchy or even false information, leaving us in the dark on these important questions.
“If you want government to be targeting its services appropriately, then it needs high-quality information,” said the Grattan Institute’s John Daley. “If you mess up that information by not responding, or much worse, deliberately put in false information, you’ll wind up with a misallocation of resources. And government resources are scarce. We want to make sure they get used where they do the most good.”
The upcoming Australian census — to be conducted on Tuesday night — has provoked controversy and concern over the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ decision to keep people’s names with their information for four years, rather than the previous 18 months. Calls to boycott the census have grown, and several parliamentarians have demanded the ABS address people’s fears — something it is unlikely to be able to do in the four days that remain until census night.
“It’s a great pity that, alongside people’s legitimate concerns about privacy, we don’t also weigh all the ways in which identifying data … can improve our lives,” said Lateral Economics’ Nicholas Gruen.
The census provides the baseline for a whole range of studies and recommendations of public policy. Public service consultant Martin Stewart-Weeks describes it as a the “gold standard” for policymakers, who prefer it as the starting point for many other studies.
Stephen Bartos, a former Finance Department senior executive who now heads up the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, says without the census, it would be far more difficult to gauge things like youth homelessness. “We can only find that out from the census. Only the ABS has the resources to go out and look for everybody.”
On the value of the census, Gruen cites the work of Professor Fiona Stanley. Her pioneering work in the 1980s linked census data with various other sources of information — from maternity histories and birth records to geographic data like street addresses — giving greater insights into child health issues such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, low birth weight, and maternal and child health in Aboriginal populations.
The consistency of census data is another part of what makes it so valuable, says Jon Stanford, a director at Insight Economics.
“It provides the most comprehensive vehicle for measuring all sorts of changes in the nature of the Australian community over time,” he said. “One example is the issue of inequality in the Australian community. Is this increasing? If so, what does that mean?
“A break in the series would be, to my mind, a bit of a disaster.”
Several researchers say they don’t understand why there has been so much controversy about the census, given the range of other government data collected by various government agencies.
“I think one of the odd things about the census debate is if you look at the information in tax returns, for example, much of it is more sensitive than what you provide on the census,” Daley said. “And the government does keep your name with that information. Or take your health — the government routinely collects detailed health information through your Medicare card, which again is kept with your name.
“I must confess I find the whole debate a bit odd.”
Gruen says all the evidence suggests the data will be well protected by the ABS. “And, more than this, our data is far more powerful for our own individual and the public good if the ABS can identify it and link it to help us discover patterns in the data that can lead to improvements in our lives.
“I wonder how many of the activists objecting to the ABS identifying data for a period of time (while protecting our privacy) hand over their shopping data to all manner of commercial interests in return for less than 1 cent in the dollar of Flybuys points and similar inducements.”