Changes to topics in the 2021 Census

Changes to topics in the 2021 Census

After a long consultation and investigation period, the ABS has confirmed changes to the questions that will be asked in the upcoming Australian Census. Glenn Capuano, our resident Census expert, explores the announced changes. Which new topics will be covered? Which topics are we losing? Why didn’t some new topics get over the line? Read on for more.

The ABS has now released the content of the 2021 Census, and there are some changes planned. This is the result of a long consultation process which began in 2017 with public submissions, to which .id responded on behalf of our clients. Two years ago ABS came back with their preferred set of content to investigate. The results are a bit different after ABS have done some testing. They were investigating a number of new topic suggestions and some changes to existing ones, but have ended up with just two new topics, with the welcome retention of a topic of great importance to our users, but the dropping of another.

When is the 2021 Census?

Census night is 10 August 2021 in Australia. Everyone in Australia on Census night will be counted, at home, or wherever they are staying. We have a Census in Australia every 5 years.

When will the 2021 Census data be released?

Census data is the backbone of many of the .id products, particularly the Community Profile and Social Atlas. The Census data are released in 3 stages, with the bulk of the information made public in the first release – June 2022. We will endeavour to have the .id sites updated with the new datasets soon after release. For many areas, .id’s Community Profile ( for Local Government contains data from 6 different Censuses, from 1991 right through to 2016.

What’s changing in the 2021 Census?

The ABS are making a few changes, including new topics, removal of older topics and changes to wording and content of some questions for 2021.

Which new topics will be included in the 2021 Census?

The ABS has announced two brand new questions which will be collected in 2021. We already knew these were under very close consideration.

Long-term health conditions
The Census will ask whether people suffer from any ongoing named and diagnosed health conditions. This includes chronic issues such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes, mental health and others. This will be a fantastic resource and marks the first entry of a truly health-related topic into the Census. We plan to put this information onto .id’s Community Profile and Social Atlas sites. It will become even more powerful as collection continues in future Censuses, allowing change over time comparison. Cross-tabulation by socio-demographic characteristics will help paint a picture of the relationship between health, employment, education characteristics etc.

Service with the Australian Defence Force
The Census will ask whether a person has previously served or currently serves with the Australian Defence Force. We’ve never been asked for this information in our work with Local Government and it’s unlear how such data may inform decisions at the local level. If you work in Local Government or a relevant community service and would value this information, please let us know what questions or decisions it could help you inform. This will guide us on whether we include this dataset in our online tools.

Which questions were proposed for the 2021 Census but won’t be included?

The ABS was previously investigating the viability of several additional new topics that didn’t make the cut for 2021.

Location and method of travel to education
Similar to the journey to work information, this would have shown how people get to their education facility and how far they travelled. It was under investigation and keenly sought after by many; education travel makes up a large percentage of trips, with lots of interest particularly on how kids get to school. In testing, the ABS found that people didn’t necessarily know the address of their school or university and the data quality would be low. They ran out of time and resources to test this topic, so it won’t be included.

Shared care of children
This would have looked at where children don’t have one usual residence and move between families in different times. It was investigated, but would require more than one new question and changes to definitions and concepts in the Census so, while useful, it looks like it’s been put in the “too hard” basket.

Gender identity and sexual orientation
As noted in the previous release in 2018, which I wrote about at the time, the ABS were investigating allowing a range of gender options and to collecting information on sexual orientation, specifically on the LGBTI community. As I predicted, however, testing of these questions revealed major sensitivities, privacy concerns and difficulty answering the questions. Due to this, there were concerns around data quality and jeopardising engagement in the Census, so both topics been dropped. However there will be a “non-binary” option added to the current question on Sex (Male/Female/Non-binary).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity
This would have identified which Indigenous group, clan or mob a person identifies with. Again this didn’t test well, with confusion about the terminology leading to it being dropped. Given the problems the 2018 Census in New Zealand have had with the Iwi identifier for Māori population, this is understandable. However, the ABS are making the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander categories more prominent in the Ancestry topic, which should lead to better counts.

Which existing Census questions will not be included in the 2021 Census?

Internet Connection
Unfortunately, ABS is removing this question from the Census in 2021. We’ve had this in some form for the last 3 Censuses (since 2006), and you can find it on under “How do we live?”. Internet access is still quite poor in some areas and this question provided a good geographic representation of these internet black-spots. Nationally, 13.6% of households had no internet in 2016. It was also a key component of the SEIFA index and a really solid indicator of socio-economic disadvantage. The stated reason for removing it is that more and more people access the internet via mobile phones these days; this is true, but we would have preferred a rewording of the question to look at how people access the internet rather than simply removing it. This one will be missed.

Which topics were proposed for removal but are being retained for the 2021 Census?

Number of motor vehicles
I’m pleased to report that the ABS are retaining this question in the 2021 Census after all. This was proposed to be removed in the original consultation document, and we strongly advocated for its retention. Our clients in Local Government use this data quite a lot in development planning, understanding local parking requirements and developer contributions. Data for the last 10 years shows Australia-wide, the “3-or-more-vehicles” category having the largest increase, making up 17% of households. It’s great news that this is continuing as there is no other source of good information on vehicles which can cross-tabulate with household characteristics.

What other changes will there be?

There are also some minor category changes and changes to wording of some other issues. We will work with all of these to provide a consistent time series for users on all our products. The Census is a fantastic resource, and the long time periods in enable our users to look at change at varying scales and understand how their local area is changing over time.

What’s next?

The Census is still 9 months away, and then the data takes a while to collate. In the meantime we’ll be working on our systems at .id to ensure we can get your local Census data into our toolkits as soon as possible after release. We will be consulting with all our Local Government clients before then to make sure the profiles have meaningful geographic areas (eg. representing any new growth areas) and that the classifications match over time, so you can get straight on with the analysis and telling the story of your area and make evidence-based decisions.

If you have any feedback on, topic inclusions etc. please get in touch with us:

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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