The ABS, not the government, is thinking of dumping the national census to save money

Photo: Getty/ Mark Metcalfe

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wants to extend its requirement to conduct the census from every five years to once every decade.

The national statistical agency has requested the government legislate to shift the survey requirement to a timeframe similar to that of Britain and the United States.

Recently appointed ABS boss David Kalisch told the SMH “the census only provides a snapshot of Australia for one day every five years, and it also takes some time for the information to be released after census night”.

He says there’s a minimum of 10 months for some of the very basic information and a two to three year wait for more detailed intelligence.

“When you are looking at population numbers for local government or business planning, often the time between getting contemporary information from the census and having to make business decisions means there have been very big changes.”

The bureau is now at the stage where it believes it can provide updated state populations every three months and smaller populations on an annual basis.

The census survey is currently held every five years and the last one, in 2011, marked 100 years of consistent data collection.

The ABS may not go ahead with the planned August 2016 census, billed to be Australia’s first paperless census, which has taken several years of planning.

A spokesperson for parliamentary secretary to the treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer said the government and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) were “consulting with a wide range of stakeholders about the best methods” to deliver information on the country’s social and economic conditions.

The national census is the largest statistical collection undertaken by the ABS and one of the most important.

The information is used to calculate the population of states, territories and local government areas, primarily for electoral purposes and planning the distribution of government funds.

The 2011 census was Australia’s largest logistical peacetime operation, employing 43,000 field staff, with 14.2 million forms delivered to 9.8 million households and cost $440 million.

Last year, the government cut funding to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, looking for $50 million in savings over three years as it sought to balance the federal Budget.

The move led the ABS to cut a number of business surveys, leading to protests from the industries concerned, including the tourism sector.