Australia Census 2021 seeks to understand what it means to be Australian, but ignores the complexities of ancestry

Of note. Canadian parallel with 2016 census that no longer included Jewish under ethnic ancestry given not in top 50 (see Technical report on changes in response related to the census ethnic origin question: Focus on Jewish origins, 2016 Census integrated with 2011 National Household Survey):

According to tradition, in 16th century BC, Cecrops, the mythical first king of Athens, conducted a census of his subjects. Each Athenian was compelled to provide a single stone and when these were counted, it was determined that the city contained 20,000 inhabitants.

The 2021 Australian Census is much more complicated in that it asks questions about income, qualifications, education, hours worked, hours assisting those with a disability, hours expended looking after children and significantly, considering the purported multicultural nature of Australian society, questions as to ancestry and language.

It is these latter two questions that give rise to concern. Firstly, there appears to be no question as to ethnic and/or cultural identity on the Census. There is an apparent lack of understanding by those conducting or commissioning the Census that ethnic identity is an issue separate, though ancillary to that of ancestry. For instance, one can be of diverse ancestry and yet identify ethnically in a different manner altogether, according to religious, cultural, linguistic or political factors.

Even if one accepts this lack of appreciation as to the importance of ethnic identity in understanding the Australian population, and its incorrect conflation with ancestry, the ancestry question on the Census provides cause for grave disquiet. In scrolling down the various ancestries listed, ranging from the Anglo-Celtic, to Chinese, Italian and beyond, I was interested to note this time, the omission of Greek. While it is not expedient for a government to list every ancestral group on a census form, it would be interesting to know the reason for the omission of the Greeks, being one of the oldest, historically and numerically significant communities in this country. It may well be that demographic change has seen our numbers (as counted by a census which usually is conducted during a month when significant members of our community are traditionally holidaying in the motherland en masse) diminish. To diminish our prominence and importance is quite another matter altogether, a cursory tale about the use and misuse of statistics in interpreting our multifaceted nature.

There is something deeply disquieting about being compelled to participate in a Census in a multicultural country that involves scrolling down the prescribed list of ancestries and then having to choose a box labelled “Other.” Reinforcing to people of diverse ancestry that they are “Other,” tacitly conveys to them the message that they are considered to be not truly an organic part of this nation’s society, regardless of their citizenship status or place of birth. It would be infinitely more respectful then, if in future censuses, either all known ancestral groups were listed, or better still, that participants, rather than choose from government sanctioned ancestries, are permitted to merely record their ancestral affiliations themselves, instead of being officially termed outsiders and thus by implication, subversive.

Conversely, in permitting the free expression of ancestry under the option “Other,” the government is allowing for a Pandora’s Box of affiliations to emerge. With a debate raging in certain sections of our community with regards to expressing our ancestry as “Hellenic” rather than “Greek,” which is considered by some to be a western imposed term, a course of action that is not recommended given that it will mystify the statisticians of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who presumably do not have training in cultural anthropology and hinder a true depiction of our numbers, the option “Other,” is also giving rise to a debate about the constituent parts of what it means to be Greek. Some people I have spoken to feel passionately about their Arvanite, Pontian or Vlach ancestry and wonder whether they should record this aspect of their “Greekness” in the census. How are we to interpret the ancestry of someone who claims that they are Cypriot? Do we not need to understand whether they interpret this as being part of the Turkish, Greek, Maronite or Armenian cultural world? Do we consider this as evidence of an emerging identity that contains all, or none of these components? This is precisely the reason why culture and ancestry must be addressed separately in the Census, and why not doing so is problematic, to say the least.

Scrolling down the Census

While I was scrolling down the Census form, seeking to record my Greek ancestry, I noted mentally, the entries for English, Scottish and Irish (but not Welsh), the main ancestries for the dominant group within Australian society. I also noted the term Aboriginal and found this too, disturbing, in that the dominant group appears to be attempting to pigeonhole and compartmentalise a vast and intricately diverse number of cultural and ethnic groups under one blanket term that does nothing to highlight their own uniqueness and if anything, serves to obfuscate their existence. Whether intentional or not, this is a form of racism that should not have any place in any sector of modern Australia, let alone its governing institutions.

To my utmost perplexity, below the entry for Torres Strait Islander, I discovered the term “Australian.” Given the previous entries for “Aboriginals” and “Torres Strait Islanders” what are we to understand from this term? Is it suggesting that our native peoples are not

“Australian?” Considering that all of us except for our native peoples draw their ancestry from outside the Australian continent, the inexplicable inclusion of this contentious term merely serves to highlight the dispossession of our native peoples and the appropriation of their sovereignty and affiliation to the land. Further, it again subtly reminds those who do not share the same ancestry as the members of the dominant group, that they are not “Australian.” The dysphoria and sense of alienation created by such a clumsy rendering of terms again reinforces the need for cultural identity to be distinguished from ancestry on future Census forms and raises questions about the manner in which our governments view our communities.

As was the case in the 2016 Census, in its current iteration, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has made no provision in the question regarding which languages other than English the population speaks, for the possibility that some Australian citizens are multilingual and use a number of languages on a daily basis. Instead, participants may only choose to list one language other than English. This obscures and restricts the gleaning of a true picture of the linguistic heterogeneity of this country. For example, on any given day, my children will be speaking to each other and to me, in Greek. As they move from the kitchen down the hallway towards my wife, they call to her in Assyrian. My wife, on the phone to her mother, will be speaking to her in Arabic, so that the children will not understand a conversation relating to their grandfather’s declining health. Through the telephone, my wife will hear my father-in-law address my mother-in-law in Kurdish, so that in turn, my wife won’t understand what he is saying. Back on the other side of the house, I will be speaking to a client in Mandarin Chinese. Linguistic polyphonies of this nature form part and parcel of the polyglot reality of Multiculturalism and the reason as to why there is an official attempt not to capture this statistically is at best, incomprehensible. Furthermore, there is no follow up question as to the level of one’s proficiency in the language claimed to be spoken or indeed, as to which language is the primary language in use. These are both important aspects in interpreting the linguistic demography in this country. For example, while someone may be fluent in English, which language do they use more often and when? How proficient is someone in the language they claim to speak, especially if this is the language of an important political or trading partner? Questions of these nature, vital for the creation of coherent language policy, are completely ignored, suggesting that despite the rhetoric, officials see themselves as presiding over a benign, monolingual monoculture.

Ultimately, the Census says just as much about those who fashion it, as those who participate in it. It is difficult not to conclude that the carefully calibrated narrowness of the questions referring to culture, ancestry and linguistic identity, seem calculated to reinforce a narrative imposed and perpetuated by the ruling echelons of the dominant class. As such, we can be justified in harbouring a lack of confidence in the 2021 Census’ ability to provide us with an accurate depiction of the intricate complexities of our social make up and in being concerned as to the use made of any such flawed statistics, by legislators.

Source: Census Censure: Census 2021 seeks to understand what it means to be Australian, but ignores the complexities of ancestry

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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