As millions of households fill out their 2021 census across the country on Tuesday, the two questions unsurprisingly causing the most controversy are about a person’s religion and sex, a demographer says.
Ahead of the official census date on Tuesday, 2.3m of the 10m households across Australia had already filled out their forms, after the Australian Bureau of Statistics allowed people to complete the questionnaire ahead of time.
The early access to the census has drawn focus on some of the questions, as well as questions some believe are missing.
For the first time, the census is allowing people to select a non-binary option when answering the question on their sex, beyond marking either male or female. LGBTIQ+ groups, however, have argued the census should have gone a step further and asked questions on gender and sexuality.
Anna Brown, the chief executive of Equality Australia, said the absence of such questions meant lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex and queer people won’t be properly counted in the census.
“Without these questions, the once-in-five-year snapshot of the population won’t capture the full diversity of our community. It’s a missed opportunity to inform crucial decisions about what services are provided to our communities, and where.”
Several organisations including Just.Equal and Transgender Victoria have called for three questions to be added to the census on gender, sexual orientation, and sex characteristics.
The ABS considered including questions on gender and sexuality as part of its census test in 2019, but dumped them after seeking advice from the office of the assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar.
Sukkar previously told Guardian Australia the ABS did not seek a decision on the questions, nor did he provide one.
Labor has indicated it would support the inclusion of gender and sexuality questions in the census, with the shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones telling the Illawarra Mercury that LGBTIQ+ people “should have been counted”.
A spokesperson for the ABS said data on the number and characteristics of people who respond with non-binary sex will be released via an analytical article.
The CEO of Equality Australia, Anna Brown, has called for questions on gender and sexual orientation to be added to the census. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
“We are hoping to provide some useful insights into the health, employment and living situations of people who responded as non-binary sex, as compared to the rest of the population,” the spokesperson said. “This will include a breakdown by state or territory of residence.
“The main release of census data will present sex data with two output categories: male and female. Where a respondent has provided a non-binary sex response, a statistical method will be used to derive the sex variable.”
Dr Liz Allen, lecturer and demographer with the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said she was not surprised the lack of a gender question had caused controversy.
“We talk a lot about the census being like a mirror, it reflects us as a nation, and the very idea that we can’t have something as fundamental as sex or gender reflected, is quite disempowering, really,” she said.
“For me it’s actually a positive thing to see people in the community, and not just advocates, calling for change, because it means that, hopefully, come 2026, we’ll see a change reflected in the way that we understand both sex and gender.”
Allen said a question around gender would in the future allow the ABS to collect data on sex, which forms understanding around other data, including fertility rates. She said the sex question was the first major change to the census since 2006, and changes are always made cautiously.
“The ABS treads a fine line between pushing the boundaries and not pushing them too far,” she said.
Allen said one issue the ABS had to grapple with was whether including questions on gender identity or sexuality would have the potential to out people to others in their household.
“What would happen if a young trans person hasn’t come out to the family?” she said. “We are putting that young person in harm’s way by wanting them to have conversations with their family before they’re ready.”
Brown said the questions would work best if they were voluntary and only for people over 15.
“The ABS and other researchers can also factor in a level of hesitancy around disclosure when analysing the data, which is quite common in surveys of LGBTIQ+ people, and use the census data in combination with other population surveys. It’s not a reason not to ask the question.”
The one optional question on the census – on religion – also remains a source of controversy.
The ABS lists the top 10 responses from the previous census in order under the question and, as the largest single response in the last census, ‘no religion’ has the top spot.
Secular groups including the Rationalist Society have been campaigning for people who have lapsed out of their religion to tick the no religion option.
Christian group FamilyVoice Australia decried the census as “woke” for making the question voluntary – even though it has been a voluntary question for more than 100 years – and for giving the no religion answer the top spot, in a move they say is “encouraging people to tick this option as it is more convenient”.
The Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Dr Anthony Fisher, also said no religion would get a higher response due to its position on the form.
Allen said the religion question had been controversial since it was introduced in 1911, and was made optional then because many at the time were concerned identifying their faith would lead to discrimination. She said the question had not changed in 100 years, just the response options.
“What is so odd is the concern that it could be some kind of trick or ploy to either turn Australia religious, or turn Australia non-religious,” she said.
Allen said the wording of the religion question was a sound methodological approach.
“The purpose of that religion question, at present, is to help us understand the culturally and linguistically diverse populations in Australia.”
The ABS recommends topics to be included or removed from the census, and it is ultimately decided by the government.
The content of the census is determined after the government’s proposed questions are tabled in parliament, the ABS spokesperson said.