Counting people in the outback


Census staff will be helping communities in areas where internet access or postal services are less reliable. Photo ABS

The counting has begun after Tuesday’s census, with more than 10 million households and 25 million people taking part.

For Bourke and Brewarrina shires, more than 4,000 people either filled out their form online or manually entered their data on their household forms.

The census is the largest peacetime logistical effort in Australia, collecting data for future policies on transport, schools, health care, infrastructure, and business.

Census data is also used to plan local services by providing data on populations, rents, mortgages, incomes, religion, languages, housing and more.

For rural and remote communities, the Census data is important for specialist organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and to determine services and economic support for regional communities.

Like many regional areas, Bourke has seen a dramatic reduction in population over the last twenty years, and the 2021 Census is likely to record further population drift.

In 2016 during the drought years, the Bourke Shire recorded one of its lowest recent population figures, with just 1,909 people counted in that year’s Census.

This was down from 2,465 in 2011 and 2,474 in 2006.

COVID restrictions made this year’s Census a logistical challenge, with fewer Census workers applying for the roles.

But for the first time, people were able to complete their Census forms beforehand and could use online forms or a mobile phone app, with 75 per cent of the population using online options to complete their forms.

Census Executive Director, Andrew Henderson, said extensive planning was put into the delivery and collection of data well in advance to make sure staff were safe during the pandemic.

“We were able to successfully test these plans in our major test of 100,000 dwellings across Australia in October 2020.

“Field activity by census staff is more common in areas where internet access or postal services are less reliable or where communities need extra help to complete the census. Where we needed to work in the community, we did do so safely and in accordance with all public health orders.

“Ultimately, the health and safety of our census staff and members of the community is our highest priority,” he said.

Bourke Shire Council General Manager Mark Riley said he was surprised the census went ahead during the COVID crisis, with large areas of the country in lockdown.

“I feared for the Census with COVID, and I was surprised they didn’t cancel or postpone it,” he said.

“I understand they struggled to have people apply to work and drop the forms off.

“And I feared for the accuracy of the census with people not getting engaged because they have other things to worry about at the moment, hopefully that hasn’t been the case,” Mr Riley said.

There is a financial incentive to participate, however. People who failed to complete the census could be fined up to $222 per day.