• Census engagement managers will be hired across the country, including in remote Indigenous communities. (AAP)Source: AAP
It's been half a century since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were included in the national headcount. It's more important than ever.
NITV Staff Writer

10 Aug 2021 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2021 - 4:20 PM

The national census rolls around every five years, like just another item on life's to-do list. But this year is special. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 census, the first ever to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It followed the successful 1967 referendum to change Australia's constitution, allowing First Nations people the right to be counted as citizens in their own country. 

While many may see the quinquennial event as just another piece of government administration, a glorified headcount, it's a significant moment. 

It's a chance to get a clear picture of the country: where we come from, how old we are, what languages we speak, our health, and so much more. 

It's why this anniversary is important: it gives us a snapshot of where we are as a community. 

"The census is the largest time where our voices are heard as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," says Haidee Allan, a Census Spokesperson for 2021. 

"The census tells us things like housing, education, who's living at home, and those things are really important for the services that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders need so vitally."

Tonight's census is expected to include some 745,000 First Nations respondents, or 3 per cent of the population. In that first count 50 years ago, only 120,000 people, or about 1 per cent of the total, identified as First Nations.

"Historically, we've had a huge undercount in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," the Gamilaraay woman explains. 

"It's they're not feeling comfortable participating in the census, or they may not know that they need to identify."

That discomfort is grounded in history: Australia's past is replete with government misusing data on First Nations people, often with murderous results. Fear of racist repercussions from neighbours and friends was another reason people did not, and to some extent still do not, identify as Indigenous come census time. 

But Allan says that fear, while understandable, is best left in the past. Part of her job is to dispel myths that exist in the community around the data collection. 

"(Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People) might not feel that the information is safe, (but it) is 100% is safe. So putting all that information down, no other organization or government organization will be able to get that data."

There are other barriers that inhibit a full participation rate.

"The literacy and numeracy, sometimes our mob feel that they can't fill in that form. So we've got in remote communities, we've got officers out there, helping them fill in the census."

It's part of a significant outreach program that the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertakes at census time. Planes, trains and automobiles are all utilised to ensure even the most remote residents have the best shot of completing the census. 

Warren King is a proud Kalkadoon man. He is a Census Engagement Manager, and works to improve participation in his home of Mount Isa and the Gulf region. 

"This census, there's been a real concerted effort to ensure that we get the right count, particularly in our Aboriginal communities.

"And the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed (by the ABS) ensure that we get the right care, because who better to know our people than our own people from those very same communities..."

King says his connection to the census goes back to his childhood, where it was a family affair. 

"We'd get the census form and the paper, mum would gather the whole eight of us around and make a big deal that we all had to answer the questions.

"So I'm quite passionate about it."

That passion has helped the ABS achieve high rates of participation even in the most remote areas of the country. 

While outreach in those areas is incredibly important, it is no less so in the country's metropolitan areas. These days, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in an urban setting. 

Chenile Chandler is a Community Engagement Officer working in Melbourne. She said that participation can sometimes be higher in remote areas than cities. 

"I think because of the face to face support is there for remote people, they do find it is easier... Because there's a smaller population, that personal engagement, one on one will actually get them across the line and countered."

She says there has been a concerted effort this year to bring that personal connection to mob living in cities as well. 

"People can come in, and they can sit down with one of our community field officers, and go through the form... making sure that they understand what's being asked of them," the Wurundjeri woman told NITV. 

Chandler is proud to work in an all-First Nations team of community engagement officers, and has high hopes for the results after tonight's count. 

"So we will actually have community talking to community... we've really had that focus in employing Aboriginal and Torres Islander people, and yes, that's something that we hope will really improve the response rate."

The response rate is the holy grail of census time: high participation means good data, and good data can help communities receive the funding and attention they need. 

"Services like health centers, clinics, education, those mums and bubs programs at their local community centers, even transport, (the) bus service that takes kids to local sports: all those things are informed by census data!" says Haidee Allan.

"So the information that you provide will then hopefully turn into those services that we need."

Chenile Chandler agrees, saying the census data are used through all levels of society.

"It's informing important decisions that are federal government or state government level, in terms of funding or services allocations. But it's also used all the way down to the grassroots level, such as, you know, local organisations." 

The census can be a political instrument: what isn't asked can be as significant as what is. The evidence for this is thrown into relief by this year's anniversary: in earlier years, First Nations people were not even asked if they existed. 

The 2021 survey however includes some special questions that have made Worimi man Dr Kelvin Kong happy. 

"One of the really exciting things about this year is, for the first time, we're including some chronic disease data... which is so important... in the work I do, and particularly for the people I've seen in the community."

Dr Kong says it will improve outcomes for First Nations people suffering from chronic illnesses, something that has been a long time coming. 

"For the first time, we're going to be able to report back to the government about... what we're enduring (with) chronic health. And for far too long, we're ignoring this important factor, particularly for our communities.

"... (with) some of this data coming back, I can shake the tree for the government's to make sure we get the funding to be able to access the health care."

Explainer: The '67 Referendum
On 27 May 1967, the people of Australia collectively voted to remove two provisions in the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Aboriginal people. The overwhelming and unprecedented ‘YES’ response was the result of the tireless work of campaigners and the growing national support for the rights of Australia’s First Peoples.