Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, for the Census

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, for the Census

The Abbott government has agreed to spend $250 million on the 2016 census and to
replace the Australian Bureau of Statistics computer systems, parts of which are 30 years old.

The census is a critically important national statistical tool. It measures population and housing – essential for evidence-based policy, government and private sector demand projection and efficient provision of community services. Lots of nifty insights can be derived by sifting the data this way and that. It anchors all statistical sampling, like opinion polls and surveys.

Periodic censuses began in Egypt in the second millennium BC, where it was used for tax gathering and to determine fitness for military service.

A five-yearly census is world’s best practice. The US and Britain do it every ten years, Canada and New Zealand every five.

The introduction of a ‘Community Charge’ or poll tax in 1990 under Margaret Thatcher meant so many Britons ducked the 1991 census in a bid to avoid the tax that it was considered unusable. They had to rely on 1981 census data until 2001 which became more and more inaccurate as the years passed.

Peter Martin at The Age says: “The $250 million boost is a win for the treasurer’s parliamentary secretary Kelly O’Dwyer, who championed the bureau’s cause before the expenditure review committee.”

I’ve been rude about Ms O’Dwyer’s political stances in the past, but am happy to acknowledge advocacy of good government when it happens.

Economic commentators and reform activists need good statistics. Without sound measures, we end up disputing each others’ data rather than policy ideas. While this is a lousy reason to spend $250 million, it is just one of the myriad uses our ABS statistics are put to.

The ABS will now deliver the full census August 6 2016. Stand up and be counted!