Census 2016 reveals Australia is becoming much more diverse – but can we trust the data?


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The ABS estimates that as of December 2016, the Australian population was around 24.4 million.
AAP/Alan Porritt

Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University

According to data released today, there were 23,401,892 people who were counted in Australia on the night of the 2016 Census who were usually resident in Australia.

After adjusting for undercount and adding back those who were overseas on census night, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that as of December 2016, Australia’s population was around 24.4 million.

Our population is growing – and fast. But can we trust the numbers?

Issues with quality

For the first time, the ABS asked an independent assurance panel to look into the census’ quality. While this was prompted by the failure of the online portal on census night, and the privacy concerns expressed by many, the additional scrutiny is a good idea.

The panel reported that the 2016 Census is “of comparable quality to 2006 and 2011 and comparable collections internationally”. It reported there was a lower net undercount (that is, people who were missed from the census) in 2016 than there was for 2006 and 2011.

This means, for the most part, we should believe the results from the 2016 Census. All data has its limitations. But it would appear that with the information we currently have the data is robust enough, at least at the national level.

But, as always, the devil is in the detail. For some individual questions, there was a high level of non-response – and that needs to be taken into account.

How we’re changing

The data tell us quite a lot about who we are as a nation, and how our characteristics are changing. The 2016 Census reveals that Australia is becoming much more diverse – in language, country of birth, Indigenous status, and religion.

In the 2011 Census, 69.8% of people reported being born in Australia. This declined over the past five years to 66.7%.

The percentage of Australia’s current population who were born in England has also declined, from 4.2% to 3.9%. Simultaneously, there was a dramatic increase in the percentage born in China – 1.5% to 2.2% – and born in India – 1.4% to 1.9%.

This increase has been driven in part by the higher rate of mortality of the Australian- and European-born populations, who are much older than more recent migrant groups. More importantly, though, most of our more recent arrivals are from Asia. Combined, those born in India, China and the Philippines made up 33% of all those who now live in Australia who arrived between 2007 and 2016.

Australia’s Indigenous population is also growing – quite rapidly.

In 2016, there were 649,171 usual residents who were identified as being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. For those who answered the question, this represents an increase from 2.7% to 3% of the total Australian population.

When undercount is adjusted for, the ABS estimates that 786,689 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should have been counted in the census. This is a growth of 18.8%, concentrated mainly in New South Wales and Queensland, and is much faster than the growth of the non-Indigenous population.

There was also a decline in the proportion of people who spoke English as their main language at home (76.8% in 2011 to 72.7% in 2016), an increase in those reporting no religion (21.8% to 29.6%), and a very rapid increase in the number of same-sex couples (a 39% increase to 46,800 couples).

One result that needs to be treated with care is the high and increasing rate of non-responses recorded to some of these questions. There were 1,622,692 people recorded as “not stated” for the country-of-birth question, and 1,411,491 who were recorded as not stated for the Indigenous status question. This was an increase of 35.7% and 33.3% respectively from 2011, which was much faster than the growth of the total population.

That doesn’t mean that all or even most of these records are people refusing to answer the question. Rather, most are records that have been imputed due to missed households or individuals.

However, we do need to make sure we carefully exclude these records from our calculations. And more research is needed to uncover whether and why there are a number of people not answering individual items.

Implications for policy

Leaving these issues aside, there were some interesting findings that touch on ongoing policy debates.

The Gonski 2.0 school funding reforms passed parliament last week. But there was actually a decline in the proportion of infants/primary school students who were attending a non-government school since the last census, from 32.7% to 31.8% between 2011 and 2016.

There was a slight increase in the proportion for secondary school students (42.1% to 42.8% in non-government schools). This means the proportion across all schools was roughly stable (36.5% in 2016 compared to 36.7% in 2011).

There is more to the school funding debate than simply government versus non-government. But the census results show the move to the non-government sector seen over previous periods may have slowed, or even reversed.

Another important current policy debate relates to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). While the census isn’t ideal for understanding changes in rates of disability, there is a very important question about whether people have a “core activity need for assistance”.

One particular result stands out – the rapid increase in the number of children and youth reported to have such a need. Between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of those aged 19 years or under reported as having a core activity need for assistance increased from 2.1% to 2.7%, excluding the not-stated population.

These proportions might not seem large. But it is an extra 38,209 individuals, or a 34.5% increase in children and youth with a core activity need for assistance.

Finally, even if the policy responses weren’t large, the most recent federal budget and election both had a heavy focus on housing affordability and home ownership. The census doesn’t have information on house prices, but it does show that the median mortgage payment in Australia in 2016 was A$1,755 per month. Sydney, Darwin and Canberra all have median payments of $2,000 or more.

Over the longer term, the proportion of the Australian population who own their home outright (that is, without a mortgage) has declined from 41.1% in 1991 to 31% in 2016. Much of that decline has been made up for by an increase in the proportion renting (either from government or a private landlord) from 26.9% to 30.9% over the same period.

These are just a snapshot of 2016 Census results. For the most part, we can be confident that, in the words of the Australian Statistician David Kalisch:

The 2016 Census data provides a detailed, accurate and fascinating picture of Australia and our communities.

The ConversationFor individual data items, we need to be more careful and circumspect. But we now have a much better idea on our nation and how it is travelling.

Nicholas Biddle, Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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First results from the 2016 Census paint a picture of who the ‘typical’ Australian is


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The attention on the 2016 Census until now has been mostly negative.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University

In a country as diverse as Australia, it is impossible to identify a set of characteristics that defines us. However, with today’s release of data from the 2016 Census, it is possible to identify some of the common characteristics, how they vary across states and territories, and how they are changing over time. The Conversation

Australia undertakes a compulsory long-form census – where detailed information across several areas is required of every individual respondent – every five years.

So, what did we learn from the first set of results? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):

The 2016 Census has revealed the ‘typical’ Australian is a 38-year-old female who was born in Australia, and is of English ancestry. She is married and lives in a couple family with two children and has completed Year 12. She lives in a house with three bedrooms and two motor vehicles.

Australia is getting a bit older; the typical Australian in 2011 was aged 37.

How do today’s results vary across Australia?

First, age varies by state and territory.

With variables like age, we often find the “typical” value by taking the median. In essence, we (statistically) line everyone up from youngest to oldest, and find the person who is older than half the population but younger than the other half.

In Tasmania, the median age among 2016 Census respondents was 42. But in the Northern Territory, it was 34. Those in Australian Capital Territory were also quite young (median age 35), whereas those in South Australia were relatively old (40).

The NT population’s relatively young age is influenced by the very high proportion that identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

While we don’t have updated estimates for that proportion (either for the NT or nationally), the data released today show that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is quite young. The median age nationally is 23. New South Wales and Queensland have the youngest Indigenous population, with a median age of 22.

This release also tells us something about the different migrant profiles across Australia. Nationally, the most common country of birth for migrants is England. And the median age of migrants is much older than for the Australian-born population (44 compared to 38).

The most common country of birth for migrants living in Queensland was New Zealand; in Victoria it was India; in NSW it was China. There may not be too many more censuses until the most common migrant nationally was not born in England.

Ahead of the forthcoming federal budget, there has been a lot of media and policy attention on housing affordability. Today’s release of census data points to some subtle differences across Australia that may influence policy responses.

Nationally, the most common tenure type is owning a three-bedroom home with a mortgage. In Queensland, however, renters make up a roughly equal share of the population. But, in Tasmania and NSW, more people own their own home outright. And in the NT, renting is the most common tenure type.

In a finding that won’t surprise many, the typical female does a bit more unpaid work around the house than the typical male. The most common category for males is less than five hours a week. The most common for females is five to 14 hours.

We won’t know how this compares to paid work for a while yet – or whether these differences vary depending on age.

What future releases will tell us

The profiles released today offer us limited information. But the census remains one of Australia’s most important datasets.

When detailed data are released in June and then progressively throughout the rest of 2017, we will be able to dig deeper into small geographic areas or specific population groups.

We will be able to ask if there are pockets of Australia with significant socioeconomic disadvantage, and if it is worsening. We will be able to hold governments accountable for the progress we have made on the education, employment and health outcomes of the Indigenous population.

And we will be able to test whether the languages we speak, the houses we are living in, and the jobs that we are doing, are changing.

But those questions rely on a high-quality census.

The attention on the 2016 Census until now has been mostly negative. There was increased concern related to data privacy, the failure of the online data entry system on census night, and staff cuts at the ABS.

In October 2016, the ABS estimated the response rate to the 2016 Census was more than 96%, and that 58% of the household forms received were submitted online. But what matters more than how many people filled in the census and how they did it is whether the responses given were accurate. We therefore need to see a lot more interrogation of the data before taking the results at face value, but we can remain cautiously optimistic.

The ABS will be hoping that now some data is released, attention will shift to what the results tell us about Australian society. It is to be hoped the data will be robust, the insights will be newsworthy, and policy and practice will shift accordingly.

We won’t know this for sure until the first major data release of data June 27 – the data released today were just a sneak peak.

Nicholas Biddle, Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Census 2016: Women are still disadvantaged by the amount of unpaid housework they do


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Research shows women consistently trade time in employment for greater time in domestic work even when their resources are on par with men.
f1uffster (Jeanie)/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Leah Ruppanner, University of Melbourne

The first release of data from the 2016 Census shows the typical Australian woman spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework. For the typical Australian man it’s less than five hours a week, suggesting women still assume the lions’ share of the housework. The Conversation

National statistics from 2006 showed that women account for the majority of unpaid domestic work time, spending 33 hours a week in domestic work. Before we write these off as the bemoans of well-resourced first world problems, it is important to note that housework and the mental labour associated with its organisation have real and long-term economic consequences, particularly for women’s employment.

Economists often factor in housework as one dimension of a person’s total amount of time in a day. People weigh all of their time demands – work, family and leisure – and make rational trades between these to maximise resources and efficiency. The problem with this rational-choice approach, research shows, is women consistently trade time in employment for greater time in domestic work even when their resources are on par with men. This is in a society that equates femininity with domesticity.

Women spend more time in housework even when they are single and working full-time. Although single women do slightly more housework than single men, it’s during singlehood that housework time is most equal by gender. When women start to cohabit, their housework time goes up while men’s goes down, regardless of their employment status. These gender gaps in housework linger over time and widen even further when children enter the picture.

Some economists have argued that the traditional division of housework and employment maximises each partners’ skills and increases efficiency within a marriage. Feminists have spent decades challenging this argument by pointing out being a woman does not make one more skilled in scrubbing toilets.

And, the fact that women remain intimately tethered to the home based on gender role expectations, means women lose out on economic resources, a deficit that compounds over the life course. Australian women have some of the highest part-time work rates in the world, often reducing work time to part-time when children are born. A second child could knock a woman out of the labour force for close to a decade.

This means women’s total lifetime earnings are reduced, it also shortens their career ladders and results in superannuation earnings that are significantly less than their male counterparts. In fact, one in three Australian women retire with nothing in their superannuation.

The lessons from these relatively small daily housework numbers – 43 to 120 minutes – are major, showing deep and persistent mechanisms of inequality. The challenge is not housework alone but the way in which housework is embedded within broader care responsibilities.

Women are expected to stay home with young children and, while they are home, they might as well put on a load of washing. Women who work full-time are not absolved of this guilt as they remain responsible for organising the childcare and reminding family members to pick up their socks and wipe down the benches.

All of this labour requires mental energy to ensure the hamster is alive and the dishes are unloaded. It is no wonder Australian women are increasingly feeling time pressed, stressed and depressed.

One way to tackle this time squeeze is to create institutional structures that encourage men and women to share domestic work more equally. Because children often bring a mountain of laundry, providing extended parental leaves that are required to be shared by both parents is a start.

Sweden has a use-it-or-lose-it approach to parental leave requiring men to take a portion of the paid leave or the family looses this leave. The result is that men share housework more equally over the life course. Men today are more interested in sharing childcare responsibilities so the economic benefits to maternal employment from this equal sharing is a win-win for all.

Leah Ruppanner, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In a world awash with data, is the census still relevant?

Liz Allen, Australian National University

How we track our economy influences everything from government spending and taxes to home lending and business investment. In our series The Way We Measure, we’re taking a close look at economic indicators to better understand what’s going on.


The Australian Census came under intense scrutiny in the wake of #censusfail. Parliament conducted a review, the Senate an inquiry, and some in the media questioned the entire point.

But cost and privacy concerns aside, population is one of the three pillars of the economy.

Understanding population characteristics is vital to inform us of challenges and opportunities, and is a necessary input in other economic indicators. The quality and timely population data found in the census is not gathered through any other means. If changes need to be made, it’s in the discussion around the census.

So we know who is where

The census is unique in that it is a total survey of the population, covering a range of social and economic variables. At present, it is the only way such data is obtained in Australia.

Without the census, we wouldn’t know how many we are, who we are and where we live. This means important planning and policy issues couldn’t be addressed. The location of schools and hospitals, provision of medical facilities, funding for major infrastructure would all be done without an accurate idea of who is where.

In fact, local, state and federal governments rely heavily on data only available in the census. The number of children, working age population, travel to work information, occupations, housing suitability and vulnerable populations is all data only found in the census.

The census also allows for sub-national analyses to be performed, particularly legislated population estimates and projections. These estimates form the basis of economic indicators such as labour force statistics and gross domestic product per capita.

The estimates and projections also highlight inequalities within society, and provide opportunities for policy responses and development at a regional level.

But the purpose of taking a census goes beyond informing resource allocation, taxation and electoral representation.

The statistical benchmarks used in surveys and studies, research and analysis, and, most importantly, lower level aggregates and groups of interest can only be informed by census data. Low level aggregates allow identification of need. Identification of areas with high proportions of young people who cannot access employment or education can provide much insight into barriers to economic participation.

Quality information about homelessness, minorities, and Indigenous populations is only truly obtained via a census.

The data we already collect won’t do

One of the arguments against the census is that we can get the same data elsewhere from the multitude of service providers that already come in contact with the public.

The problem is that these data collections are administrative. They’re collected for a reason and with limited scope.

Centrelink data is collected to provide a service. Information we provide to the tax office ensures tax compliance. Medicare doesn’t keep information about overseas nationals and people who have never had their birth registered, which is an issue in remote and Indigenous communities.

Australia’s large immigrant population would become a blind spot if we were to rely on the data the government already collects, as many aren’t eligible for certain government services. The data collected by Centrelink, the tax office and Medicare don’t provide sufficient scope. So far the census is the only data source that fits the bill.

Some alternatives

Population registers are a viable alternative to our five-yearly censuses. Finland uses a computerised system to record population data including births, deaths, marriages, migration and so on. The Netherlands, on the other hand, conducts a virtual census by pulling together digital data from a number of different sources.

These registers offer real-time data, but they require ongoing maintenance and verification and often exceed the cost of our census. Ironically, they also need to be checked against a census. And Germany’s experience shows population registers are not always accurate.

Further, major legislation changes would have to go through for Australia to be able to pool data like this. The establishment of a national population register would be costly and demand interdepartmental government coordination.

We could also look to the United States’ method of conducting surveys in between a 10-yearly census. This mixed methodology was suggested by the ABS in 2015 to cut costs.

However, limited financial upside, together with lower quality data, makes it a risky alternative for Australia. Plus we shouldn’t think of the census as an unrecoverable cost. The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom estimated the costs of their 2011 census were recovered in just over a year.

The future is data

So how can we improve our census?

Online census completion will save money, improve data quality and reduce data processing time. However, online collection must be balanced to ensure disadvantaged populations aren’t excluded. The end of the census collector hasn’t arrived just yet.

More importantly, we must define contemporary data needs moving into the future. An informed public conversation about migration, employment, families and our changing population is much needed to gain social licence to collect and use relevant data.

Whether the methodology of census continues as is or we introduce an alternative method of data collection, the key going forward is the question of legitimacy. Steps must be taken to justify the need to take a census, and to assuage privacy and security concerns. Without social license we’ll see the failings of the 2016 census play out over and over again.

Australia’s future relies on strong evidence we can agree on. This isn’t solely the domain of researchers. We all have a stake.

The Conversation

Liz Allen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.