Recommended Sponsor - Buy Original Artwork Directly from the Artist

Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Nicholas Biddle, Professor of Economics and Public Policy, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

August 2026 may seem like a long way away. Between now and then, there will be at least one federal election, the 2024 Paris Olympics will have been and gone, another Ashes cricket series will have taken place, and the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup will have just finished.

Planning for the August 2026 census is, however, well under way at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

On Thursday, the ABS released results from the first round of consultations, and gave an indication of likely directions for the 2026 census. It received 260 submissions in this phase, and some of the proposed changes are quite exciting for better understanding the nation as we enter the second quarter of the 21st century.

While the model won’t “fundamentally change”, the big decisions for the ABS are whether to add new questions to the survey, whether to take some away, and whether some of the questions need to be adapted.

The ABS flagged there could be changes to topics such as income, ethnic identity, gender and sexual orientation. The ABS is also considering dropping some questions on fertility, owner-managers, motor vehicles and unpaid work.

Balancing act

Governments, researchers, the media and community organisations all rely on data from the census, so changes don’t happen lightly.

Dropping a question from the census can have serious impacts on our ability to track changes in outcomes and leave a gap in what we know about our nation.

At the same time though, adding too many questions is risky. If the ABS made the census too long, the burden on the community would be unsustainable, and people may stop completing it. This poses a devilishly difficult tradeoff.

Potential removals

The ABS is considering removing the question on income from the census, and instead linking to “administrative data”. What that would mean is a census record would be supplemented with tax and social security data.

Data linkage to the census is done routinely in other countries, and has a certain appeal. Income is one of the questions that has historically had a high non-response rate, and it takes up a lot of space on the form. Plus, there’s more and more administrative data on income that can be linked to the census, which is increasingly being used in research.

But tax and social security data on income isn’t perfect and can miss people. Plus, there’s no guarantee the social licence to keep using linked administrative data will continue as people become more concerned about data privacy on the back of high profile data breaches. It’s an idea worth exploring, but not without risks.

There are four further topics considered for removal:

  • number of children ever born

  • number of employees (employed by owner-managers)

  • number of motor vehicles in the household

  • and level of unpaid work on domestic activities.

It isn’t that these topics aren’t interesting, but the ABS thinks there are alternative data sources available. There will undoubtedly be people who see the census as still the best method of collection for these topics, but they’re going to have to make a strong case for their retention.

What about additions?

There are 12 new topics the ABS is considering for inclusion.

In a year in which Australia will vote on the Voice to parliament, the ABS continues to consider additional questions on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity.

The ABS is also considering adding a topic on ethnic identity, which could be used in addition to many existing questions (like ancestry, language, country of birth) to get a richer picture of Australia’s cultural diversity.

However, the ABS is concerned there are differences in how people interpret the term “ethnicity”. It’s seeking feedback on whether to add an additional question, or whether to replace ancestry with ethnic identity.

The ABS is also exploring whether and how to ask questions on gender, sexual orientation, and variations of sex characteristics. The census hasn’t included these questions in the past so we are reliant on survey data with much smaller samples to know how many LGBTQI+ people there are in the country.

For the first time, in 2021, the ABS made available the option for non-binary when people were asked about their sex. However, the ABS’ review of responses concluded it “did not yield meaningful data”.

There’s limited information on sexual orientation in the census, mainly by looking at someone’s relationship status and the sex of their partner. However, that misses those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual (or use a different term) and aren’t in a relationship with someone in their household.

The ABS recognises the importance of such a question, but one of its concerns with this topic is privacy, and answering the question with other member of the household present. Although this is understandable, it’s unclear whether this is a strong enough argument for not including it, and how attitudes on the topic will have continued to shift by 2026.

Read more:
LGBTIQ+ people are being ignored in the census again. Not only is this discriminatory, it’s bad public policy

What you can do

As the next phase of consultation is open, people are encouraged to identify whether the potential new topics might be helpful, and what the risks might be in dropping or changing existing topics.

All Australians benefit from having a robust and relevant census. The more Australians able to give their views to the ABS, the better the census will be, and the better the decisions that will flow from the data.

The Conversation

Nicholas Biddle is a member the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Australian Statistics Advisory Council.

ref. Gender, sexual orientation and ethnic identity: Australians could be asked new questions in the 2026 Census –