From Census to Surveillance

Forty years after the first attempts to de-anonymise the Australian census, in 2016 the government finally succeeded. This is the story of the forty year struggle against efforts to turn the Australian census from a population snapshot into cradle-to-grave surveillance and the public response.

Q7 What experience (if any) have you had with the 2016 Census collectors?

This question was open ended and not a required question. As such it was answered by 319 and skipped by 227

Experience with census collectors (field officers) varied from one extreme (no contact at all) to multiple visits. Personal impressions of the conduct of field officers varied from one extreme 'very polite' to 'rude/harassing'. A surprising proportion of respondents report no contact with census collectors however these responses came in between 30 August and 9 September so it is reasonable to assume some of these people may have received contact at a later date.

Got home from travelling to find two new census forms and a lovely note saying that it's now "overdue" #censusfail pic.twitter.com/XiWZrWQYqH

— Matt Li (@mazzanet) September 14, 2016

@Info_Aus this is the other side of the flyer. pic.twitter.com/E69LNhaJKI

— Louise Smith (@iwritebkozican) September 10, 2016

Threats of fines are mentioned in the responses to the survey but also on the Twitter hashtag #CensusFail where evidence is posted that the ABS has issued threats to households prior to the cut-off date of September 23. Written notices have also been distributed by the ABS claiming that census field officers have the right to enter private premises. The Census and Statistics Act stipulates that census field officers may only enter common areas normally open to the public.

This aggressive law and order approach is particularly inappropriate in light of the multiple technical and political issues with this year's census. That a government department is printing and distributing materials that are misleading people about their rights and responsibilities (and those of the government) demonstrates a deeply unethical approach toward the 2016 census.

In an attempt to bring some reasonableness to the situation, and at the behest of the public, a motion was put to the Senate on August 12 by Senators Xenaphon, Ludlam & Lambie requesting that the ABS issue a statement that it would not fine people it believes have not completed the 2016 census. The motion was voted down by the Liberal government with the support of Labor.