The five-yearly Census is critical to understanding vulnerable communities in Australia

The last month has seen much speculation over the future of Australia’s Census, the process that has collected information from Australian households every five years since 1911. With the aim of saving money, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which administers the Census, put forward a number of suggestions for change. One proposal was to push Census collection out to once every 10 years. Another was to merge the ABS with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; however, that idea has been rejected by the Abbott Government. Head of the ABS David Kalisch has stated that the Bureau could gather similar data on the population more frequently at a lower cost, but has not said how that would be done.

A move to a 10 year census would have a significant impact on people experiencing homelessness. This is a highly mobile and dynamic group of people; therefore it is difficult to collect information about them. CHP is concerned that a ten yearly Census would not provide the accurate and timely information needed to understand the composition of this group, or people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, and would further limit the homelessness sectors’ ability to respond to changing trends.

In the five years leading up to the 2011 Census, CHP worked closely with the ABS to develop a new statistical definition of homelessness, which was applied for the first time that year. That work was significant because it developed a definition of homelessness that can be used across a number of ABS data collections.

The UK and the U.S collect Census data every 10 years and the New Zealand government is also researching the viability of this model. In 2010 Canada abandoned the compulsory census and replaced it with a voluntary survey. Statisticians there say the data is useless and will have serious implications for the development of public policy. CHP is concerned that a 10 year Census would distort the estimation of people currently experiencing homelessness, as well as other social statistics that are relevant to people who are at risk of homelessness, like the cost of housing and household income. Less regular Census data would have a serious impact on effective decision making at government level about where to invest resources to tackle homelessness.