Census 2011

2 August 2011 (revised 4 Aug 11 and 22 Jan 12)

Background The Number of People Who Decline to Provide Data
Why So Many People are Concerned The Possible Consequences of Not Providing Data
How to Complain
What Concerned People Are Doing The Retention of Personally-Identified Census Data


For many decades, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was highly trustworthy. The data that it collected in the Census was quickly de-identified and quickly aggregated into statistics, and the Census did not involve significant risks to people’s privacy. Unlike other agencies, the ABS has had a strong reputation of not leaking personal data.

Unfortunately, a significant change occurred in 2005.

Commencing with the 2006 Census, the ABS is now keeping personal data, which can be associated with the person’s real-world identity, without the person’s consent. Some information about what the ABS calls the SLCD program is provided at the end of this document.

In 2005-06, the ABS was forced to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA), and made adjustments to its (originally, extraordinarily privacy-invasive) plans, following considerable efforts by APF and some other organisations.

The APF is not aware of any PIA being conducted in 2010-11, and can see no evidence anywhere on the ABS site of any such activity. This is despite the Privacy Commissioner making abundantly clear that the importance of doing a PIA is indicated by “the significance or scope of a project, and the extent to which a project involves the collection, use or disclosure of personal information”, and expressly recommending “the introduction of a statutory requirement on public sector agencies to undertake a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for [major] projects”. Nor was the APF briefed, nor invited to provide any submissions, about the 2011 Census.

The APF’s strong impression is that:

  • the same privacy-invasive process is being used in 2011 as it was in 2006
  • yet worse, the 2011 data will be linked to the 2006 data

Why So Many People are Concerned

Most people consider it to be a good idea to count people within geographical areas, and very few consider such counting to be an invasion of privacy.

On the other hand, a great many people consider it not to be reasonable for personal data to be forcibly collected, kept identifiable, and linked from one Census to the next. And some people find the whole idea completely unacceptable.

What Concerned People Are Doing

Here are examples of approaches that the APF is aware of that such people are adopting in order to avoid their personal data being captured and abused during the 2011 Census:

  • Being absent from all households on the night of Tue 9 Aug 2011. (Although it may be cold that night)
  • If others in the household are submitting a return, telling them to leave you off it. (This may be a concern to one or more of the other people in the household)
  • Getting an envelope and a form, and sending a blank form in. (This will very likely result in successive re-visits from the collector, followed by threatening letters from the ABS. But if enough people were to do it, the volume might be such that the ABS may not be able to follow everyone up)
  • Getting an envelope and a form, and filling in nonsense data, at least in response to the questions you object to. (This is not appropriate for people who do not like to be forced to lie in order to protect their privacy)
  • If all persons in the household object to providing data, avoiding being at home when the Collector calls. (This will require great persistence, because Collectors and their supervisors are paid to chase, chase, and chase again)
  • Asking a series of questions about the security of the data, and saying that you’ll provide the data once you have satisfactory answers. (The ABS is likely to eventually reply with carefully-composed and vague text that does not answer your questions. Ask the questions again. You may need to sustain your patience over many months until one side or the other gives up)
  • Refusing to provide the data. (The ABS has the power to prosecute, and to seek fines that the magistrate could choose to apply once, or for every day that the data is not provided)

The APF neither encourages nor discourages any of these approaches. (And it would be unwise for anyone to actively encourage their use, because that might be interpreted as an incitement to break the law).

But the APF believes that the information should be widely published, so that people are informed about the situation.

The Number of People Who Decline to Provide Data

It does not appear that the ABS publishes any clear data about refusals. The following is available, however.

“Refusal by householders to complete the [1986] census form [was] not a significant cause of underenumeration and account[ed] for less than 0.012 per cent of households [c. 6.75m?, so c. 800 in 1986, long before the abuses began in 2006]. in about 70 per cent of these cases the number of occupants was able to be estimated by the collector from information obtained orally from a member of the household or other persons, and this estimate was included in the census count [But presumably what was made up was a count, not data about the missing people. Note that very few people would be likely to object to merely being counted. The privacy concern is primarily about the data collection and retention]” (ASSDA ?1986).

” … System Created [i.e. dummy] Records are created where the collector has not been able to make contact with the household, yet believes that the dwelling was occupied on Census Night. Smaller numbers of System Created Records are due to situations where people indicate a desire to mail back a census form but do not do so, and where people refuse to complete a census form. The term ‘non-contact’ dwelling is used in this paper to refer to all these situations …
In 1996, non-contact-dwellings were 62,234 (0.9%) [missing 1-3 people each = 125,000]
In 2001, non-contact-dwellings were 156,460 (2.0%) [missing 1-3 people each = 300,000]
[A search of the ABS site unearths no such figures for 2006, so everyone is free to draw their own conclusions, and extend their own extrapolations] (ABS 2970.0.55.019 – 2001)

“Refusal by householders to complete the Census form is not a significant cause of undercounting”
[But ‘significant’ has a meaning in statistics. If the undercounting is evenly spread, it can be quite large but not significant] (2901.0 – Census Dictionary, 2011)

The Possible Consequences of Not Providing Data

The APF is aware that:

  • a number of people have adopted various of these approaches in the past
  • some of them have received successive follow-ups and letters
  • some of them have been threatened with prosecution

Here are samples of the kinds of letters that are sent to people who refuse, called in order a ‘passive refusal letter’, an ‘active refusal letter’, a ‘pre-NOD (Notice of Direction) letter’ and a ‘NOD (Notice of Direction)’ letter, mirrored here.

[The following paras. were added on 4 August 2011:]

The APF is aware of only two sources of information about cases arising from failure to provide information to the Census:

  • The ABS told Queensland Pride that 4,955 formal notices were sent to people directing them to fill out their census this year [2006]. Of these, approximately 4,000 completed forms were returned. Of those that weren’t, 278 people were later prosecuted. [No information was provided about the outcomes.] Penalty for failing to fill out the census form range from Good Behaviour Bonds to fines of up $500 plus court costs.
    An ABS spokesperson said: “A person cannot simply pay the fine at the time of receiving the notice and not complete the form as the fine relates to an offence and, as the offence is a criminal one, it must be proved in a court of law.” (Qld Pride, 2 Nov 2007)
  • Jozsef Pelican, of Regent St, Waverley, had refused to fill out a 2001 census form. Launceston Magistrates Court was told Mr Pelican further refused despite being warned and subsequent visits by Australian Bureau of Statistics personnel. Magistrate Peter Wilson said the refusal amounted to “wilful defiance”. Pelican was fined $100 and given 28 days to pay. (Launceston Examiner, 11 Dec 2002)

It is understood that following the last UK Census, there were 78 prosecutions, but those were predominately people who were abusive or troublesome to field staff.

People can draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the number of instances of non-provision of data, notices, prosecutions and successful prosecutions.

How To Complain

The APF has never had so many contacts from the public about one topic.
We don’t have the resources to help. But here are some channels for complaints.

1. To the ABS

See the ABS’s Census Service Charter for the 2011 Census. It points to the Census Inquiry Service on 1 300 338 776 (08:30-20:00,7 days).
There are some additional possibilities on the the ABS’s normal Contact page.

2. Then to an ABS Liaison Officer

Population Census Liaison Officer
Population Census Field
Australian Bureau of Statistics
Locked Bag 10
Belconnen ACT 2616
[But they offer no email or phone.]

3. Then to an ABS Review Officer

Complaints Review Officer
Strategic Liaison and Risk Management Section
Australian Bureau of Statistics
Locked Bag 10
Belconnen ACT 2616
[But they offer no email or phone.]

4. Next to The Ombdusman or the Privacy Commissioner

See the Ombudsman’s Complaints page.
No email.
Phone Enquiries 9am – 5pm (AEST) Monday to Friday – 1300 362 072.
The online form option requires a (very?) recent Adobe Reader.

During the last 6 years, the Privacy Commissioner has been of very little use to us, the public; but you can try at the Privacy Commissioner’s Complaints page.

5. And/or to Your Local MP

This is a channel that’s always open to you. You can find your local MP here.

6. And/or the Media

Unfortunately, most of the media are hard-pressed, and just regurgitate the ‘good news’ stories about the Census that are fed to them by the ABS’s Public Relations machine. But if your argument is straightforward but sound, some media outlets may be interested.

The Retention of Personally-Identified Census Data

There are two programs under which identified Census data is kept.

1. The Forms Only, Stored With Consent, Inaccessible for 99 Years

If the ABS receives a form with all of the Yes boxes at the end of the form ticked (Q.60. on p.17) – whether or not everyone in the household has actually agreed – the whole form will be kept at Australian Archives and released after 99 years. ABS says that many forms are ticked in this way.

The UK has kept all forms, securely, for 100 years, since 1841. On the other hand, the data collected up to 1911 was very limited, and nothing like as detailed and intrusive as forms in recent decades.

The UK recently compromised the 100-year rule a little, by releasing one set of forms a few years early. It’s unclear whether that may turn into the thin end of the wedge, with shortened disclosure times.

The APF considers that a program of this kind is appropriate, provided that it is carefully-controlled, and only to the extent that the consent of each adult individual actually is free and informed (which in the present situation, we very much doubt).

2. All Data, in Electronic Form, Without Consent

A project commenced in 2006, called the Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD).

This applies to “a random sample of 5% of persons in the 2006 Census of Population and Housing”.

You have no choice, and you don’t know whether you’re in the 5% sample or not.

“Wave 2 of the SLCD will endeavour to bring together the wave 1 records with their corresponding records in the 2011 Census”.

The data is identified. Expressed in bureaucratese (by the ABS, not the APF): “in the absence of name and address, inclusion of a non-identifying grouped numeric code when linking records can improve accuracy and efficiency”.

The Census Form glosses over this with a constructively misleading statement.

It says “A person’s name-identified information will not be kept …”.

That statement obscures (and appears to have been devised in order to obscure) the following:

  • the data is rich enough to enable correlation with the person’s name
  • the ABS is doing precisely that, in order to link all of each person’s data through time
  • the fact that the data is not “name-identified” is irrelevant