Census makes for a better Australia

An official counting of the non-Indigenous population in Australia began the very year the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, until 1825 “musters” were held regularly where all members of the community gathered at specified locations to be counted.

Today, counting the nation’s population is a much more complex business. The ABS recruited about 32,000 staff last year to ensure every person in Australia, no matter where they lived, had the opportunity to answer the more than 60 questions the census entailed.

The result is not just a fascinating snapshot of contemporary Australian society, but an enormously rich source of information for governments, businesses, community groups and the like to help them make broad policy decisions on everything from education, health and infrastructure to allocating local services for individuals, families and communities.

The first tranche of data from the 2021 census, released on Tuesday, reveals a nation undergoing significant change. One of the most prominent shifts has been generational, with, for the first time, the number of Boomers and Millennials now each accounting for 21.5 per cent of the nation’s 25.5 million residents. Just a decade ago, Boomers – people born between 1946 and 1965 – accounted for more than 25 per cent of Australians while Millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 – made up just 20 per cent.

That shift should be viewed as more than just a demographic quirk. For many years, governments have focused on policies that have financially benefited the Boomer generation, including franking credits, superannuation concessions and negative gearing. It is time for a greater focus on how the younger generation will accumulate enough wealth to buy a home and support a family.

The generational shift is not the only change that should have a real-world effect on government policy. For the first time, more than 1 million families in Australia are headed by a single parent. In four out of five of those, the parent is the mother. That can only strengthen the argument for such things as more affordable childcare and narrowing the gap between the superannuation savings of men and women.

And new census data reveals more than 8 million people, nearly a third of the population, have a long-term health condition, including about 2.2 million who have a diagnosed mental illness. A further breakdown reveals almost 16 per cent of the population have a long-term diagnosis for back pain, which has emerged as the second most common chronic health condition, followed by arthritis.

Victoria’s status as the multicultural centre of Australia was reinforced by the figures. More than 40 per cent of respondents in the state said both their parents were born overseas, compared with the national average of 37 per cent, and a language other than English was used in 30 per cent of households, compared with the national average of 25 per cent.

Surprisingly considering the length of lockdowns, Melbourne grew by 432,539 people between 2016 and 2021, which is more than Sydney’s growth level.

There are many considerations that come into play when governments formulate and enact policy. Public pressure, perceived need, ideological leaning and political necessity are just a few. But there is nothing that can ground these efforts in such a detailed and comprehensive way as the census. Australia is, and should in future be, a better place as a result of this work.

Gay Alcorn sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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