Launch of the 2011 Census

27 July 2011

Good evening,

The Census is fascinating. According to the last Census, there are 105 people in Australia who speak a made-up language at home.

I'm not sure what made up languages people are speaking, but I'm pretty sure that question wasn't asked one hundred years ago, when the first national Census was completed in 1911.

It is my privilege today, 100 years after the first national Census, to launch the 2011 Census of Population and Housing, which will take place on Tuesday 9 August 2011.

In 1911 Australia's population was officially almost four and a half million people, although that we didn't then count indigenous Australians.
Andrew Fisher was Prime Minister.

The average weekly income was four pounds 13 shillings.

A century on, and our population is just over 22 and a half million.

We have our first female Prime Minister, the average family weekly income is $1171 and the first Australians are fully accounted for.

I believe statistics matter.

And this is even more so now than it has ever been.

Big decisions are coming, and what you know, and what you find out, informs and measures how good those decisions are, and how sensible they are, and how long they can be trusted.

And that's the brilliance of the Census.

The enormous range of the information the Census produces is the basis of what, next year, and next decade, and next half century, will be our sustainable prosperity.

With Census Night looming I thank the ABS, of course, for the big effort they have put in, for this one night of an era that shows ... our face in the mirror as the nation our latter history has made of us, the people we now are.

And it's not just those who work on the census, it's people pulled in from all across the Bureau, from departments now feeling the strain, it's the whole ABS, in sum, that does the work tonight.

The Census is the largest peace-time operation in Australia. This year 29,000 Collectors will leave no stone unturned to get an accurate count of everyone in Australia on Census night.

Teams of fly-in fly-out Census workers have been arranged to reach some of Australia's most remote communities; staff and passengers on international cruise ships and tankers docked in Australian waters will be counted; and administrative arrangements have been made for Australian troops in Afghanistan and other theatres, and crewing our navy ships and submarines.

In all, 14.2 million Census forms will be delivered to Australia's 9.8 million households.

The Census is also changing with the times. This year 30 in every 100 of our population are expected to fill out their forms online using eCensus, a fast, easy and secure alternative to the traditional forms.

But, in a way, for me the most interesting, the most absorbing, the most telling of all are the social statistics --- who's marrying, who's divorcing, who has a grandmother in the house, how big a family size is now, who goes to the local school, who travels a long way in a bus to school, and how all that works.

Health too, and what, through you, we know of it - obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, the diseases of old age, the avoidable diseases of childhood, the economic consequences of those avoidables and those inevitables, feed into the kind of government we must be, the kind of nation we are, avoidably, or curably, and incurably, becoming.

I'll be really interested in the outcomes of the bio-medical testing. For the first time we'll be seeing blood and urine testing - voluntarily provided - high cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and how fast our national health is spiralling downwards, if it is, and what that means in the money we allocate not just to the wealth, but the health, of nations, nations yet to be born.

As the American poet and educator Robert Hayden once said:

"In God we trust.  All others must bring data."

In Australia we may not always invoke an all-knowing deity but we've always been a practical, commonsensical nation.

We're not nerds, but we do like the data.

And so it's only natural that when we write the story we always do it with one hand firmly on a decent set of numbers. The proof. The facts.

It is fitting that we've gathered here at Jones Bay Wharf, where construction of Berths 19-21 started back in 1911, the very year of the first national Census.

Work on the wharf was sporadically interrupted labour shortages during the First World War, until it was finished in 1919.

It has long played an important role in the development of Australia's international trade. It keeps even now its cultural significance as a remarkable port structure.

Similarly, the national Census faced early interruptions.

The 1931 Census was postponed until 1933 due to the financial impact of the Great Depression, and the 1941 Census was not held because of the Second World War.

But from 1947, the Census resumed as a five yearly collection and since then has been our snapshot of our people and our nation.

You've heard how huge the Census task is, and how logistically vast the operation is. But the results and the outcomes are even more significant and wide-reaching.

We all know that at the broadest level, the Census underpins our democracy by giving us the estimate population of each state, territory and local government area.

These population counts determine electoral boundaries, and how many members there are in the House of Representative and how much money is given to each state and territory.

If you're a numbers man, you tend to like this stuff.

Census data also informs our social policy, like when we close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and when we hope to halve homelessness by 2020.

It helps us do this at a community level – in Gosford, in Moonee Ponds, in Ipswich and in Rockingham.

And Census data of course helps measure the effectiveness of social service delivery right around the country.

Reaching even further, it looks at the broadest spectrum of activities across businesses, sectors and organisations that we may hardly even think about most days.

Traffic light programming, newspaper deliveries, broadcast radio schedules, park tree planting.... all these things might use ABS data and end up helping you or you children...

As I said, we are a practical commonsense country and we like to have the data to show us how best to do the next task on the list.

The information the ABS will collect in 2011 will make a real and ongoing difference to community planning, infrastructure development, business opportunities and the work of all levels of government.

The professionalism and passion that has gone into the preparation for the Census never fails to impress me.

There's the small army of Census Collectors, who this week begin delivering Census forms and information right across Australia, not just to households in our suburban streets, but in every location regardless of its geographic isolation or population.

As I have mentioned, there are also the people behind the scenes at the ABS, some of who have spent their entire career dedicated to the Census, working on multiple Censuses in different roles, and sticking it out through the intervening years of the cycle to get ready for the next one.

We have, in this room, Andrew Lamb, who has been with the ABS since 1972, and in 2011 has played a vital role in Field operations and the recruitment of Census field staff.

Andrew is here to help us mark the Census and commemorate 100 years of national Census taking in Australia, by unveiling a numismatic one dollar coin.

The Royal Australian Mint, in conjunction with the ABS, has released the coin to commemorate how important the Census has been to building the nation.

It features the Census logo which surrounds us this evening.

I'd like to introduce and welcome Andrew to the stage, with his wife Beverley Lamb, who both feature on the coin packaging.

The photo of Andrew and Beverley was taken in 1973 and embodies the Census program and the dedication and enthusiasm of all the Census staff.

I also invite Brian back to the stage, to help unveil the Census commemorative one dollar coin.


Can I close this evening by urging everyone, not only in this room but right across Australia to take a few minutes on the night of Tuesday 9 August, to fill in their Census form, on paper or online.

To the Army of the Census… You ... are doing well. You are unleashing ... new administrative data sets which will be the key to what might be called the cuneiform script of generations yet to come, priorities unborn, decisions that feed and shape us, as the kind of people we want to be, and must be, in a time more unpredictable than any before it.

Good on you. Well done. You ... are the scouting parties the present sends into the future to tell us what is needed, and what, henceforh, must be done.

Thank you.