Is It Legal To Leave The Census Blank?

In the lead up to Census night, some Australians are very much against participating as this will be the first time name and address information will be retained by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The Census is compulsory, as the ABS continues to remind us, but is it legal to leave the survey form blank? Let’s find out.

By law, voting in Australian elections is compulsory for all citizens but at least you can choose to submit a blank form or just do a donkey vote. Participation in the Census is mandated by law as well and there has been a lot of controversy over the retention of personally identifiable information this time around. Privacy pundits have criticised the ABS and the Government for this move but their concerns seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

So the Census remains and it’s happening tomorrow. (Click here for our in-depth guide here.) Failure to complete the survey or providing willfuly incorrect information could earn you a hefty fine. We’ve already talked about ways to potentially avoid doing the Census (though it’s not exactly foolproof) and discussed how to leave your name off the survey form, but is it okay to return a blank form?[related title=”More Stories on Is It Legal?” tag=”is it legal?” items=”5″]

The answer is yes and no.

Legally speaking, you are required to participate in the Census and if you don’t provide the information that has been requested in the survey, the Census and Statistics Act 1905 (we’ll just call this the Census Act from now on) gives the Australian Statistician, head of the ABS, the right to write you a letter and compel you to provide it. You then have less than 14 days to fill out the missing information. These letters can also be sent out by ABS officers authorised by the Australian Statistician.

Failure to answer the questions, as stated in the Census Act, Section 14, will result in a fine of one penalty unit, which is around $180. That’s for each day that the information is overdue, the same as with not submitting the form entirely.

As we’ve already mentioned in a previous article, fines are rarely issued. That’s not to say that the ABS won’t do it, just that the chances of that happening appears to be quite low.

Nonetheless, yes, technically it is not legal for you to submit a blank Census form back to the ABS under the Census Act.

It should be said that the Census Act hasn’t been properly revised since the mid-80s; that was a different time. Technology has vastly changed and Privacy concerns have garnered the attention of the public. Census Act doesn’t reflect these changes and doesn’t provide much clarity on what information is or isn’t considered to be statistically important.

If Census 2016 does end up being a gigantic clusterfuck and a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, let’s hope the ABS and the Government will learn a valuable lesson for the next Census.

Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.

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