From new questions to how personal information will be retained, the 17th national census won’t be what we’re used to.
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27 Jul 2016 - 5:58 PM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2016 - 7:57 PM

Australia's five-yearly snapshot about its country and its citizens is fast approaching and, just like in 2011, the national Census will occur on Tuesday, August 9.

It is the largest collection of statistical information that the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertakes. Australian visitors are counted, but residents out of the country on Census night are not.

Why is it important?

The Head of Census 2016, Duncan Young, told SBS it provides a moment for everyone to play a role in shaping Australia's future.

"The Census is critical in Australia to helping the government make good decisions,” he said.

“[It assists] decisions about how government funding is distributed and how we plan for services."

Information collected in the Census will go towards services such as infrastructure, health and education.

Government organisations also use the data to understand social and cultural trends and needs.

Duncan Young explains the ABS has been increasing its efforts to promote the count within multicultural communities.

“Australia has beautiful diversity as a country. It has passed the point where more than half our population were either born overseas or have one parent born overseas, Mr Young explained.

 “So it’s really important that we understand that diversity, understand where our different cultural groups live, understand the different languages that people are using in their homes to make sure that services are really relevant and valuable to all Australians.”

Many government organisations use the Census information, including SBS, which has more than 70 languages on its radio schedule.

Audio and Language Content Director Mandi Wicks says the 2011 Census helped SBS better serve multicultural communities.

"With the last Census it very much influenced the services that we provided. So we ended up adding new languages, six new languages to the services including ... Pashto, Dinka, Tigrinya," Ms Wicks said.

“We used the data to understand the size of language communities in Australia, and we’ll be interested to see how that’s changed over the last five years. We also used data like household income, unemployment, English proficiency, and recentness of arrival.”

A digital move

Ten million letters will be sent to the majority of households, providing an online login for people to complete the Census on the internet.

But people can still complete the Census on paper and return it by mail - and fines do apply for not completing it.

The ABS expects about 16 million people to head to their computers, smartphones and tablets to complete the Census - close to 70 per cent of Australia's population, and more than double the number that completed the e-Census in 2011.

How will you complete the Census?

One family that is split on how it will complete the form is the Elias family from Sydney’s inner west.

82-year-old Angela Elias moved to Australia from Greece more than 50 years ago, and said she will complete the Census using the traditional pen and paper.

Despite efforts from her grandson, George Elias, to teach her how to use a tablet and computer, she explained she feels more comfortable not filling out the questionnaire online.

“I don’t use a computer. I don’t need it,” Ms Elias told SBS.

“I can’t use it, only a little bit. I have a TV, it’s enough. I have a mobile phone for emergency when I’m driving, but don’t use it.”

“But if you can (complete the Census online), why not?” George, 18, said.

George said he “can’t live without” his mobile phone, and will turn to his trusted tech friend on his first Census night.

“Probably my phone, my phone this year,” Mr Elias said.

“Only because it's more convenient, I can do it anywhere. [It] doesn't take much time at all.”

The same applies for his aunty, Ingrid Dawn Elias, who said she will "probably" complete hers online, too.

“We’re all comfortable with that. You know, going to work using the computer; you’re quite used to that. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Privacy concerns?

The digital move has cut the Census cost by 100 million dollars compared with 2011, down to 330 million dollars.

But it comes with privacy concerns. In another first, filling in names and addresses will now be compulsory, and kept on file for up to four years.

That has created concern about a lack of privacy, but Mr Young explains the move is efficient and will not compromise anyone's personal security.

“As soon as we get the data in we separate [it],” he told SBS.

“We take the names and addresses away from the rest of the Census forms so the people's Census responses are anonymous and stored anonymously.”

What languages can the Census be completed in?

The Census must be completed in English, but services are available for those who speak another language.

The Census Inquiry Service has linked up with the Translating and Interpreting Service, or TIS, to accommodate those needs. People can call the TIS to speak with translators, who will then help them fill out the Census.

What else is new?

The questions have, for the most part, remained the same. However two questions have seen subtle yet important tweaks.

In the question "what is your religion", "no religion" will be on top of the list of possible responses.

That could see Christianity overtaken as the most popular religion, which could then trigger changes in Government funding.

And, for the first time, the Census will also recognise those who don’t identify as male or female.

Anthropology expert from the University of Sydney, Dr Luis Angosto-Ferrandez, believes it is crucial for everyone to stand up and be counted.

“They are indispensable and very important tools for further discussion on national identities and political cohabitance,” Dr Angosto-Ferrandez said.

“Censuses are not only just a tool that captures reality but, to some extent as well, really creates reality. And that's why they are so important.”

George Elias said he wants to ensure his Greek/Italian heritage is accurately represented.

“Different cultures have different opinions. Different cultures, different family members living under one household. It varies between different cultures. And it’s important to get most of the cultures in,” he said.