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Tuesday, 26 February 1985
Page: 184

Senator TATE(3.12) —I wish to pass very few remarks on the 1986 census which this paper is directed to explaining to the Parliament and to the general public. The fact is that any census involves an intrusive element. It places a burden on those in the household who have to respond to the questionnaire that is brought to their door on the night in question. It is an invasion of privacy, but I think most of us around this chamber would agree that the statistics developed as a result of the answers to those questions being given in a reasonably honest way do help governments at all levels, and many institutions such as social welfare institutions and others with an interest in the demography of Australia. A census gives them the sort of basic information which is essential to undertaking planning to provide the services for which parliaments such as ours are called upon to appropriate moneys to fund.

However, I want to comment in particular on what I think is the very proper response of the Government to a call from various researchers and historians that census forms be retained with a view to making available at some time in the future-perhaps 75, 80 or 90 years hence-the names of those who responded to the questionnaires. This would be helpful for members of historical associations, heritage organisations and so on who want to have access to the records. It was put by Mr Vine Hall on behalf of those interested in matters of heritage-I think he is the Director of the Society of Australian Genealogists-that the policy which has been maintained by all governments in Australia organising census questionnaires involves the destruction of the names of those in the household. He called it a policy developed in the 1890s by politicians who wanted to obscure their own convict ancestry. He said however that it was hardly appropriate to the modern day. Of course, what he failed to take account of was the experience of many of those who came to this nation from war-torn Europe, South America or elsewhere-places where repressive regimes have used the answers to questions in census surveys as a way of getting hold of information from those who otherwise, except under pain of penalty for not answering a questionnaire properly, would not have given the information to government.

The fact is that many migrants in Australia who came from countries with a history of repressive government are highly suspicious of filling in these questionnaires. If it were not for the absolute, cast-iron guarantee that their names will not enter into any records accessible at any time in the future, the worth of those surveys would be very much diminished because, quite frankly, the information given would not be accurate. Who could blame people with that sort of history for not wanting to answer the questions? Rather than dwelling on the supposed fault of the politicians in the 1890s in trying to cover up their convict ancestry, I think we have to recognise the very real fears that people have in disclosing this information. I certainly think the Government has done the right thing in refusing to go along with this request of the heritage organisations.