When Rome Counted its Citizens


Census taker visits a family of Indigenous Dutch Travellers living in a caravan in 1925. Wikipedia CC

You may not immediately deduce from the headline that we are about to embark upon a discourse about the Census, which will happen in Australia on or about  August 10, 2021.

I say on or about because the online version of the head count can be filled in electronically on or a few days after August 10. You just have to declare where you actually were on Census night.

As you will recall, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) held its first online census in 2016. There was a major glitch on Census night (August 9) when the ABS website crashed, leaving millions of citizens perplexed. In October 2019, a Census test was held across 100,000 households to assess ‘end-to-end operational readiness for the 2021 Census.

In 2016, about 37% of people opted to fill in the paperwork and wait for an official collector to come calling. This time the ABS says it expects a better than 63% online response, given research that shows Australians prefer to complete the census online.

Taking a once in five years snapshot of the country’s population is an expensive exercise, budgeted at $565 million. The ABS is in the process of recruiting 22,456  field staff and managers.

Named after the Latin word ‘censere‘, meaning estimate, the Roman census was the most developed of any in the ancient world. The Romans (Ed: what did they ever do for us?), conducted their census every five years. The Roman Empire  used this information to extract duties  from its citizens.

An ABS history page says the first known census was taken by the Babylonians in 3,800 BC, nearly 6,000 years ago.

Records suggest that it was taken every six or seven years and counted the number of people, livestock, quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables. 

So yes, there is an historical precedent for the (compulsory) collection of personal data from every household in the country.

You may remember Tony Abbott, who was Prime Minister for two and a half footie seasons (2013-2015), tried to axe the census to save money. It didn’t happen (such change requiring a new Act of Parliament). To be fair to Abbott, both the Fraser and Keating governments sought to abolish the census for the same reason.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Martin unearthed this little-known fact in 2013 while writing about other countries which had tinkered with changes.

As Martin noted, Britain had for a long time been trying to abolish its census (held once a decade since 1801). The government held an inquiry in 2013 to find ways to update the way the UK collects data. This year’s census will be the last. Thereafter, the UK will harvest the data people generate in their everyday lives.

Apolitical, a social network for civil servants, observed that other countries are moving in this direction or have already done so, including the US, Norway and Finland.

Rather than survey citizens, statisticians would collect the data traces left behind by people’s everyday interactions with government. Data is collected from welfare and tax departments, housing and vehicle registrations or our health records. 

Apolitical says statisticians can glean more from the aggregating of all this information (and anonymising it to protect citizens’ privacy).

In 2010, Canada’s Harper government tried to replace its census with a voluntary survey, prompting the shock resignation of Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh.

Following his resignation, Dr Sheikh, once described by a colleague as ‘the best economist in Canada’, expressed his disapproval of the government’s decision, saying that a voluntary survey could not replace a census. 

Following the reinstatement of the mandatory census in 2015, Canada is preparing to hire 32,000 census enumerators and crew leaders to survey its vast country in 2021. Canada, like Australia, uses data from the census to share resources fairly and accurately  among its widely-scattered provinces..

New Zealand also considered replacing its census, using data from government departments to determine its population. The country’s last census was in 2018 but it is already gearing up for 2023.

Some governments have encountered deep social opposition to certain questions. Former President Trump wanted a Citizenship question in the 2020 Census. He backed off after a wave of hostilities that included a threatened boycott.

In July 2019, he realised there was no time left to have the question included in the 2020 Census papers. So he issued an executive order calling on agencies to turn over citizenship data to the Commerce Department.

In the first few days of his administration, President Biden rescinded this directive. Litigation about this issue argued that citizenship data could have politically benefited Republicans when voting districts are redrawn.

The other controversial question on census forms is the one about religion. In 2001, the UK re-introduced the question (not asked since 1851), largely as an attempt to calculate the size of the Muslim population. Accordingly, some 390,000 people in England listed their ‘religion’ as Jedi, a response which occurred in Australia too, with 70,000 recorded in 2001. In 2016, 48,000 people entered Jedi as their religion. New Zealand  had the highest per capita Jedi response (53,000) in 2001). Statistics New Zealand’s response was: ‘Answer understood but not recorded’.

The US does not ask the question (nor does Scotland), though the US asks about race and ethnicity. In Australia, the religion question has been ‘optional’ since the first Census in 1911. The box ‘no religion’ is a recent addition.

Curiously (well, we think it is curious), the ABS confirmed that 90% of people have answered the question in recent censuses. If your religion is not listed, the form provides space to enter the data. Because of this response, the ABS holds data on 150 religions in Australia.

The idea of trying to run a country without a census horrifies Peter McDonald, Emeritus Professor of Demography at The Australian National University. He thinks scrapping the census would be a nightmare for planners and governments.

“The problem in Australia is that we have no reasonable alternative to the census,” he told FOMM this week. “From an accuracy (and privacy) perspective, the census is better by a long way than trying to combine various administrative data bases. Without the census, the States would continually claim that their population was larger than it actually was. And every other group that received funding on a population basis would do likewise. 

Statistics is a dry subject, but one we encounter every day of our lives, so let’s leave you with this. Mathematician Joey Scaminaci’s clever rap ‘Statistics’ attempts to teach the basics in three and a half minutes. It  impressed one fan who commented:

From Australia I thank you, this is very helpful! Gonna ace my big exam”.


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