It's Not The Election That Will Tell Us Most About Australia

The census is a map that shows us who we are as a society.

23/06/2016 5:56 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

It's not the July count but the August one that will be most revealing for Australia. It's the Census, not the Election, that will tell us most about ourselves. The election will reveal a lot about our political persuasions and policy preferences, however it is the census that will offer far more clarity and detail about our nation. And in a political era where policy and budgetary settings extend beyond the election cycle, the data and forecasts delivered twice a decade in the census are becoming increasingly essential.

If the election is a national compass that will set something of the policy direction for Australia over the next three years, the census is a map that shows us who we are as a society in a big-picture sense, as well as the contours that highlight our varied local communities and their detailed needs. The political custodians of the national compass will need a good understanding of the lay of the land, the changing terrain and the context in which national leadership operates if they are to guide us effectively.

The map this year will show a more complex Australia, more delineations than in the past culturally, economically and socially. The land of wide open spaces is becoming more urbanised, densified and diverse. The land of the middle class is showing more fractures and there are some fault lines emerging across this big land of opportunity. However, despite the differing terrains across this nation of communities, the census will show a sense of unity among the diversity -- a contiguous landscape of varied elements.

The changes it will show can be summed up in five words:

Bigger: Not only will the numbers show that we exceed 24 million, but we've more than doubled in the 50 years since the 1966 Census when we hadn't even hit the 12-million mark. Sydney will also be shown to have just hit the 5-million milestone -- the first Australian city to do so and also more than twice the population of 2.4 million just 50 years ago.

Older: Our population profile will no longer be a "population pyramid", as for the first time there will be more Australians aged over 55 than under 20. The 1966 Census showed fewer than 1 million Australians aged 65 or over while this one will show more than 3.5 million. Those in the "aged" category of 85 plus have gone from fewer than 55,000 then to almost half a million now.

Urban: For the first time, this Census will show one in four Australian households live in townhouses or apartments rather than detached houses -- the highest figure ever, up from just one in 10 in 1966. The six state capitals plus Canberra have grown from just over half the population (6.7 million people) to more than two-thirds (16 million) in half a century.

Diverse: In five decades, the proportion of Australians born overseas has increased from 17 percent to more than 30 percent. Back then, 90 percent of migrants were born in Europe with those born in Asia comprising less than one percent of the population. Today, China, India and Vietnam are all in the top five countries of birth.

Mobile: Australians travel more than ever and getting to work by private vehicle is still the main transport mode, used by two in three workers. More than half of all households have at least two cars compared to fewer than one in 10 households in 1966. Back then, 40 percent of households had no car compared to just 8.6 percent today.

Every five years since 1966, this detailed social map has been updated and delivers a fascinating picture of a changing country. As we each plot our own points on August 9, we are in the process charting a national map that will provide navigation into the next decade -- a decade that will likely be the most transformative in Australia's history.

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