Ask LH: Will I Really Get Fined For Not Completing The Australian Census?

Ask LH: Will I Really Get Fined For Not Completing The Australian Census?

Dear Lifehacker, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and had a recommended page which was by Census Australia. I started going through the comments to see what people were saying and was astonished to see multiple responses by the ABS talking about a $180 fine if we don’t complete the Census. Is this true? Can they really fine us for refusing to divulge every bit of information we have about ourselves? What are my legal rights here? Thanks, Mighty Pissed Off

Dear MPO,

Your questions essentially boil down to one issue: can the government legally fine you for not completing the Census? Sadly, the answer is yes.

As outlined in the Census and Statistics Act 1905, anyone who fails to complete and return the Census form can face potential penalties of up to $180 per day. This isn’t toothless scare mongering like the “laws” surrounding torrent sites and the like — rather, it’s concrete legislation that applies in every state and territory in Australia. If you refuse to participate in the survey, the Bureau has the authority to dole out harsh penalties.

With that said, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) stresses that this is a last resort. Before any fines are issued, the ABS will notify you and explain why it’s your legal obligation to complete the Census. You may also receive a Notice of Direction letter warning you of the consequences for failing to comply. If you still refuse, they may choose to prosecute and there probably isn’t not much you can say in your defense.

So how likely is this to actually happen? During the last Census in 2011, the number of fines issued was just 78. We’d be pretty surprised if this was the grand total of Census abstainers out of a population of 20 million. It seems more likely that quite a few people slipped through the nets. The risk is yours.

According to Privacy adviser and IT security consultant Roger Clarke, the ABS isn’t particularly zealous when it comes to prosecuting Census dodgers. As he explains on his blog:

With hundreds of thousands of potential targets, it would seem likely that ABS would pursue only the priority cases, e.g. those who:

  • were violent or otherwise seriously nasty (you’d hope so – Census collectors are people too!)
  • formally and successively refused (‘refuseniks’)
  • were so annoying that they drew the ABS’s attention to themselves
  • were semi-randomly unlucky by virtue of having a zealot for a collector and/or collector’s supervisor

It’s worth noting that Clarke has no “inside intel” on the ABS and his opinion shouldn’t be treated as gospel. In other words, the risk is yours.

It’s also worth noting that the Greens are pressuring the ABS to rule out fines for people that don’t want to include their name and address details when completing their census forms due to privacy concerns. You can read the full story on Gizmodo.

The statistics generated from the Census could potentially shape future policies and funding from the Government — but if you really don’t want to participate, there are a few evading tactics you can employ that will reduce the likelihood of getting fined. Click here to read our in-depth guide.

Is anyone else planning to dodge the Census due to privacy concerns or otherwise? Tell us about it in the comments!

See also: Ten Things To Remember When Completing The 2016 Online Census

Cheers Lifehacker

Have a question you want to put to Ask Lifehacker? Send it using our [contact text=”contact form”].


  • It’s not deliberate, but I will be overseas on a business trip on census night, so I will miss it. Pretty sure thats a legit excuse.

    • It will probably depend on how long you’re away. It sounds like the ABS are going to be pretty ruthless this time chasing people who don’t complete it on the 9th. They’ve also stated allowing everyone a 2 week window to complete it. So presumably they won’t start pursuing people until after this.

      I was overseas (also legitimate work purposes) for the last one and didn’t return until about a month after the census date. There were a few reminder/missed visit cards in the letter box, but no one followed up.

      So if you’re just away that night, expect they’ll still chase you up. Beyond that, it’s an unknown quantity how long after they’ll persist … but from the sounds of things, anything under a fortnight away won’t cut it.

  • Fill out name and address that’s all.
    Cencus data cannot be used in court. If you get fine for not completing it correctly challenge the fine in court. They will have no evidence.

  • What is truly disturbing here is that an entire nation can be led to think its ok for a government to make completing the census and voting compulsory. Compulsory participation, whether in our fake democracy of proxy voting for political parties or in a survey in which you have no say in the questions is succinctly Orwellian. It is textbook totalitarianism. The willingness of most Australians to obey without question is a symptom of a deeply sick society with a fundamentally unquestioning herd mentality. I have never and will never vote or fill out a census form as a matter of principle for as long as it remains compulsory. By responding to threats and intimidation, by jumping into line and saying “yes masters, I obey!” we reward bullying behaviour and indignify ourselves. As a society we have no clear understanding of what “freedom” actually means. We place no limits on the power of government which means every form of oppression that has ever existed in the world by a government over its people remains an option on the table for any current or successive government. By simply being born here did I agree to be an Australian? By being a citizen of a country must we automatically forfeit our right to life itself to the state and expose ourselves to the possibility of being conscripted or executed? With what logic? THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT OWN US! It is unbelievable how stupid human beings are. All three levels of government, the electoral commission and the ABS know who I am and where to find me. They have never fined me for not voting or participating in the census over a 25 year period.

    • I think you have made a tin foil scarf to go with the hat and it’s cutting of circulation to your brain.

    • @homelesshungry- it is unfortunate that this is the world we live….. Sheeple walking around eyes open, brain on automatic mode… too pre-occupied about the next best material thing that the media/their favourite idols tell them to buy. So they can work harder, & be good slaves. Work til they’re in their 70’s, to have nothing, Coz from cars, to tv’s, & furniture their whole lives, they acquired through some type of loan… It amazes me how idiots these days walk in to a CAR yard, not even having $5,000 dollars sometimes not even $500- walk out with a car worth 30k, about 50k by the end of the loan & do this time & time again while they elevate themselves to others who have less material things than them & have never stopped to think even once in their life if this is normal & never looked into alternatives but follow everyone else to the same path in life. As a child, the never ending feeling of being not good enough, & just wanting acceptance. To be a “responsible” slave & work to have things on loan (that they can all take away with a blink of an eye) pay nothing but interest & as long as they have credit, will never live within their means. Retire and have nothing, while the Superfund trustee made 5x the total of what they’ve saved from using our Super for investments & the Gov always gets their cut!! 2 things certain in life like Daddy said: DEATH & TAX!!

  • The ABS has access to the Electoral Roll. They already know who you are and where you live. All you are doing by filling in the Census form is confirming what they already know. However, your answers to the questions are more important – these are used to drive policies in various Government departments and determine where the money is going to be spent.

    • Well if they already have the info they don’t need it again and they wont be getting mine.
      Its a complete utter invasion of privacy

  • I’m not an Aus citizen but have a short term lease, and received a form in my mailbox.
    I find it insane that I, as an impermanent person in Oz, have to tell the Aus government how much I make and the nationalities of my parents, among other personal stuff that the gov otherwise has no access to.
    Can I get away with filling in minimal information?

    • Can you hide out in your consulate/embassy? Would that count as being on ‘foreign soil’ and not require Census completion?

    • Actually for non residents they only process 3 answers, age,sex and marital status. You have to fill in the other questions to prevent ‘strategic answering” ie people claiming overseas residence. So they do not have to fill out the form. In any case simply saying no one home on census night solves the problem. I do it every time! Electoral role no longer has addresses, you have to have name and address to check if you are on

  • C’mon class action law suit once a data breach occurs! Looking forward to joining in on that.

    • Short answer YES!!!!!!!
      Just like the Australian Electoral Commission, Australian Bureau of Statistics also have access to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade data base. The micro chip inside your Passport (if it was issued after 2005) Scans moment you walk thought immigration gates and checks your passport photograph by use of facial recognition technology.

  • Ok so what about people with mental illness, particularly paranoid schizophrenia? Are they really going to fine those people? It would be clear if they are only income support that they are unable to complete this census. I also wonder about those who have little education and cannot read or write effectively. Where is the support or consideration of people in difficult circumstances that prevent them from just logging on and not being able to submit like everyone else? $180 fine per day if they don’t complete it…? These people are also ill placed to be able to afford large fines. I think there is little consideration of people’s circumstances in situations like this. I’m disgusted that people will be fined for not doing this!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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