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Potential changes to the Australian Census: could it kill the goose that lays the statistical golden egg?

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Potential changes to the Australian Census: could it kill the

goose that lays the statistical golden egg?

Posted 25/02/2015 by Aaron Greenup

The Australian Statistician, David Kalisch, announced on 19 February that, as part of the

options for transforming its statistical collections, the ABS is considering changes to the way

it runs, and potentially, the frequency of the Census (Reforming the Australian Bureau of

Statistics, ABS Media Release, 19 February 2015).

This article is part of a series of FlagPosts exploring what the Census is, why it’s important,

how other countries run censuses, and what the alternatives—either officially proposed or

informally discussed—may be.

Census and counting the population

The Census is without doubt the biggest single activity the ABS undertakes; currently run

nation-wide once every five years (next scheduled for August 2016). In its current form it

fulfils two roles, the first being the more traditional role of a census, a population count,

and the second being a means to which social and demographic data can be collected for

the whole population at the same time.

While the aim of the Census is to accurately measure the number and key characteristics of

people who are in Australia on Census Night, and of the dwellings in which they live, it is

not the official measure of population. The official measure is the Estimated Resident

Population (ERP, Australian Demographic Statistics, cat. no. 3101.0). It is ERP that is used to

determine the distribution of government funding and define electoral boundaries (amongst

others), not the Census.

The ABS recalibrates this ERP every five years using Census data, as well as Census coverage

data (produced from the Census Post Enumeration Survey, Census of Population and

Housing - Details of Undercount, cat. no. 2940.0) and other data to ensure population

estimates continue to be as accurate as possible.

Between censuses, the ERP at the National and State/Territory levels is updated quarterly

using administrative data relating to births, deaths and migration (overseas and interstate).

For smaller geographic areas, the ERP is updated annually using models based on indicators

of population change, such as dwelling approvals, Medicare enrolments and counts of

people on the Australian Electoral Roll, as statistics on migration at fine geographic levels

are not reliable (Regional Population Growth, Australia, cat. no. 3218.0).

Why is the Census important?

One of the most important uses of Census data is to provide a means of recalibrating, or

rebasing the ERP. Without this recalibration or rebasing process the ERP could vary from

what the actual population is. The Census provides the ABS with the opportunity to assess

the extent of any variation of ERP and to review their modelling and make modifications if


In addition to providing a means of ensuring quality population estimates are maintained

over time, the Census also provides a rich snapshot of demographic and social data at very

fine geographic levels. This information is valuable for researchers, businesses and for

governments at every level.

What are the implications of change?

The ABS is yet to announce what changes are being proposed for the Census, however, the

key considerations for any change will be:

• How will the changes to Census affect ERP calculation?

• How will the changes impact on the availability of very fine geographic levels of detailed

demographic and social data?

The next FlagPost in this series will explore how other countries conduct a census, and what

methods they use.