When is it and what happens if you don‘t complete it

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The Census of Population and Housing 2021 is just around the corner and there are a number of things you need to know about this year’s census – including how to avoid fines of up to $222 a day.

Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has every Australian household fill out a census form at exactly the same time to get a picture of the nation as a whole – where we live, what our households look like – do we live alone or in multi-generational families, how much we earn or if we have any religious beliefs.

This time census night falls on August 10, which is next Tuesday.

The census provides an invaluable snapshot of the population every five years, by asking specific questions about the religious, cultural and financial circumstances of everyone inside your household on the night.

In the first census of 1911, for example, the number of people identifying as having no religion was one in 250 people. In 2011, it was one in five. In the most recent census in 2016, it was nearly one in three.

The information is used to shape the country’s health, education, transport and infrastructure needs.

The census is held every five years, and includes all people in Australia, whether you’re a citizen or not. The only people exempt are foreign diplomats and their families. Everyone needs to complete, or be included on, a census form.

However, things will also be a little bit different under current coronavirus health guidelines.

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How will Covid-19 impact the 2021 Census?

Despite all of Greater Sydney being in lockdown until the end of August (at least) and 11 local government areas in southeast Queensland having their lockdown extended until Sunday (but with another extension possible), the show must go on.

“The census is still going ahead,” ABS executive director and national spokesman Andrew Henderson told news.com.au.

But things will look a little different. Previously, 40,000 census field officers knocked on doors to hand out paper forms and then collected them later.

However, now only people in remote and regional areas will be visited in person.

Due to public health concerns, everything else will be done online.

“This census was designed as contact-free,” Mr Henderson said. “We expect 75 per cent to be done [online] anyway.”

Census has just dispatched 10 million codes for online forms to be filled out. These codes allow the entire form to be completed online.

You can still opt to fill out hard-copy paper forms that can then be returned via the post office, free of charge, and also without coming into contact with anyone else.

“That’s more challenging in the rural, regional areas. Luckily many are not affected (by lockdowns or public health orders,” Mr Henderson said.

Some regional areas will receive door knocks from census officials.

In the last census in 2016, when online submissions were first introduced, the website crashed, with only two million Australians successfully completing their online forms on the night.

It was later revealed that the census website had been targeted in four cyber attacks, prompting the ABS to “close down the system” as a precaution.

However, officials have had five years to plan for the upcoming census and are confident it will go smoothly.

On October 27 last year, 100,000 households around Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin and Canberra took part in a practice census to test out the new contactless method.

“We were able to do the tests no problems at all,” Mr Henderson said.

What happens if I don’t complete it?

The census is mandatory and if you don’t take part it can lead to a fine.

The ABS website says: “The Census is compulsory. Everyone who is staying in your household on Census night must be included. This includes visitors and babies.

“You can be fined if you refuse to complete the Census or submit an incomplete form.”

Under the Census and Statistics Act 1905, you can be issued a Notice of Direction, which directs you in writing to complete the census.

If that doesn’t make you do it, you can be prosecuted and fined up to $222 a day.

These are the key dates to watch out for.

  • Late July 2021 – paper forms will be delivered to households in some rural and regional areas
  • By early August 2021 – Households receive instructions on how to take part
  • August 10, 2021 – census night
  • After census night – Households who have not responded will receive reminder letters and visits from census staff
  • Late August 2021 – census officers follow up those that have not responded (mostly through the mail – door knocks may happen in regional areas).
  • June 2022 onwards – Release of 2021 census data starts

The ABS says the information you give is not shared with any other government departments or agencies such as the police, Australian Taxation Office or Centrelink.

It is legally bound to protect the privacy of everyone and will not release information in a way that will identify any individual or household.

Information is usually released by area.

Census field staff have a legal obligation to keep everything confidential and can face penalties of up to $26,400 or imprisonment for up to two years, or both, if confidentiality is broken.

After four years the ABS will destroy names and addresses – unless you opt in for your information to be stored in the National Archives of Australia, where it will be held for 99 years and then released publicly in a kind of time capsule.

What questions will be asked for Census 2021?

The census provides details of the cross-section of society, and so the questions are very detailed.

They are broken into nine sections:

  • Address
  • Setting up the household: Who lives there, who spent the night there, who was away.
  • Personal information of people who are there: Relationship of each member in the household to the other, eg spouse, parent, child etc.
  • Personal information of people who are away: Providing the same information of people who normally live in the household but aren’t there for whatever reason, whether that be because of a hospitalisation, a holiday or because they’re working a night shift.
  • Cultural background: Language spoken at home, religion (if any), whether you’re an Australian citizen, if you’re of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin, country of birth, country of birth of your parents, when you arrived in Australia (if applicable).
  • Care and health: Looking at carer status, whether a person needs someone else to take care of them because of disability, long-term illness and young or old age.
  • Education: Finding out level of education and what educational institutes people go to.
  • Paid and unpaid work: How much do you earn, what you do for work, if you work from home, if you’re a full-time, part-time, casual or freelance worker, if you’re on the dole or receiving worker’s compensation, if you’re on paid or unpaid leave, if you’re working more than one job, what are your main duties in your job/s, where you work and how you travel there.
  • Dwellings and housing: How many vehicles you have, how many bedrooms in your home, if you rent or own the home, how much it costs to live there (either mortgage or rent).

You won’t be fined if you make a mistake when answering a question but it is an offence to provide false or misleading statements or information. The penalty is a fine of up to $2220.

How do I complete the census form?

If you’re completing your form online, head to the census website after you receive a letter with your census number and a temporary password.

You can submit your Census forms before August 10 – so the online forms are open now.

If you want to submit early, you can request for your 16-digit Census number to start your from now.

You can also request a Census number if you want to complete separately from others in your household.

For those more old-school, you can still fill out the Census on a piece of paper.

In that case, you fill in everything manually, but you’ll still need a Census number and temporary password.

If you want a paper form but you’ve only been given the online one, you can order a paper form using or call our 24-hour automated paper form request service in 1800 130 250.



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