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


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