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Census Laws

The Census is conducted every 5 years by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and all Australians are required by law to take part. Data collected in the survey is used to help inform government policy in many areas, such as healthcare, urban planning and education, as well as how non-profit and community organisations operate.

The date for Census 2021 was Tuesday, August 10, with responses required to be submitted within a week of that date.


The ABS has authority to collect, hold and use personal information for Census purposes under the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975 and the Census and Statistics Act 1905.

The first Act confers functions on the ABS that include to:

  • collect, compile, analyse and disseminate statistics and related information;
  • ensure co-ordination of the operation of officials in collecting, compiling and disseminating statistics and related information, especially in regard to:
    • avoiding duplication;
    • compatibility and integration of statistics;
    • maximum possible use and collection of information;
  • form and ensure compliance with collection standards;
  • advise and help official bodies in relation to statistics;
  • provide liaison between Australia and other countries in relation to statistics.

The second Act states a Census should be held every five years and the ABS should compile, analyse, publish and disseminate the statistical information collected.


The Census Act makes it an offence for a person to fail to complete the Census. The penalty is a fine of 1 penalty unit ($222). A person can be fined $222 each day until they comply.

The Act also makes it an offence for a person to knowingly provide false or misleading information in the Census. The  penalty is a fine of 10 penalty units ($2200).

If a Census officer, directly or indirectly, divulges or communicates to another person, for an unauthorised purpose, any information given for the survey, they face a maximum penalty of a fine of 120 penalty units ($26,640)  or imprisonment for 2 years, or both.

Census information

Personal information collected by the Census can be divided into statistical and non-statistical personal information. The ABS, as an Australian Government agency, must comply with the Privacy Act 1988.

Non-statistical personal information

This is collected outside the scope of Census law and can include a person’s name, address, email address and phone number. It is requested to allow the ABS to communicate more easily with a participant if contact is necessary. This information is kept until the end of the Census collection period, expected to be October 2021.

Statistical personal information

This data includes name, address, basic demographic details (such as age, sex and marital status), and personal characteristics (such as date of birth, country of birth, languages spoken, education, employment and income). Some of this data is sensitive personal information, including racial or ethnic origin, religion and health conditions. After Census data is processed, the ABS separates names and addresses from other information on the Census form, storing them separately and securely.

Names and addresses are collected for many reasons, including:

  • for research projects;
  • to produce accurate population estimates to help distribute government funds and for electoral purposes;
  • to help understand how and where people travel for work.

How  information is used

Census data is combined with other data from other sources in a process known as data integration. Statistics and information from the Census and data integration are used to develop policy and plan infrastructure and services for communities, as well as show how Australian society is changing over time.

Data collected cannot be used for purposes such as marketing, compliance, fraud prevention or national security and law enforcement.

The first release of Census data is due in June 2022.


The 2016 Census was primarily conducted online for the first time, and millions of Australians were locked out due to a mass outage on the website. The incident was dubbed “CensusFail” and the ABS reported a $24 million budget blowout as a result.

The 2021 Census was criticised for lacking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, which concerned LGBTI+ advocates. There were also concerns about gaining data from hard-to-reach communities, such as homeless people. The Salvation Army estimated that for every homeless person counted, about 13 were not.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Sally Crosswell

This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

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