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Back in your box: Archbishops slam planned changes to the 2026 Census

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Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has backed Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB’s fight against the Australian Bureau of Statistics which wants to effectively wipe religion out of the next Census.

The ABS plans to change “What is your religion?” to “Does the person have a religion?” with a tick box for ‘no’ but not one for yes in the 2026 Census.

Instead of providing a list with tick boxes of the most prevalent religions in the country as in previous counts, there will only be an option to write an answer in a blank space.

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The Catholic Weekly understands that the proposed change had not been anticipated when it was discovered in March and some Catholic Church leaders have already written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Australian Bureau of Statistics about their concerns.

Writing in The Australian on 30 April, Archbishop Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the write-in-only option is an “unwarranted complication” that will result in many responses being “invalid”, “indecipherable”, or “ambiguous”.

“We are people of different faiths, cultures and languages each worthy of dignity and respect, with a common home and a desire to lead meaningful and productive lives,” he wrote.

“To understand who we are, we need a Census that accurately and comprehensively takes the pulse of the nation.

“That accuracy and comprehensiveness is [now] under threat…We have very few measures of the religious and spiritual profile of Australians.

“The ABS appears to be seeking to weaken the accuracy of one of these measures by changing the Census question asked of Australians about their faith.”

Photo: supplied

The change would result in a loss of a sense of religious heritage, make it difficult for researchers to compare trends from previous years and will introduce a new bias in favour of ‘no religion’, Archbishop Costelloe explained.

Accurate accounts of minority religious groups such as members of the Eastern Catholic churches, would also be made difficult and “substantially impede the formulation of policies and plans for these groups.”

Archbishop Fisher said Australians pride themselves on being the most successful multicultural nation in the world.

“Part of our success has come from our willingness to respect and make space for the diversity of faith traditions in our country,” he said.

“The most recent Census showed that recently-arrived migrants are far more likely to be affiliated with a religion than the general population.

“Making the Census religion question more complex will make it difficult for those for whom English might be a second or third language to record their religious identity, and the resultant paucity of data will limit the ability of governments and faith communities to be able to direct assistance where it will be most needed.

“The majority of Australians profess a religious faith and should be able to easily state so on the Census.”

Dr Trudy Dantis of the ACBC National Centre for Pastoral Research said the phrasing of the new proposed question will be a “double-bias” against people of faith.

The biggest concern is the new question for religion will “definitely impact standardisation and the ability to track responses over time,” she said.

“The tick box format has been implemented successfully in successive censuses and gives us really rich data.

“The highest response rate for this question, which is a voluntary question, was 93.1 percent in the 2021 Census.”

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