Consultations with religious groups and testing to inform decision on Census religion question, says ABS

Si Gladman / 05 June 2024

Consultations with religious groups will help to inform whether the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reformulates the religion question at the 2026 Census, a Senate estimates hearing has heard.

Yesterday, head statistician Dr David Gruen (pictured) told estimates that the ABS would make a decision on the religion question later in the year “on the basis of the evidence that we get from the test and from consultations that we have with religious groups”.

In September, the ABS will test a newly formulated question proposed for the 2026 Census, with the wording changed to remove the bias that presumes all respondents have a religion.

In recent weeks, Catholic Church leaders have been lobbying the Prime Minister, calling on the government to intervene in the ABS testing process and reject the proposed new religion question.

At the estimates hearing, Liberal Senator Dean Smith asked Dr Gruen to clarify what the ABS was doing regarding the “very sensitive and, dare I say, increasingly contentious” matter of the religion question.

Dr Gruen explained that the ABS had released a statement of clarification following recent media reports and would continue its “listening phase”.

“In a test in September, we are testing an alternative option. In this test we will ask, ‘Does the person have a religion?’ And there will be a ‘no’ and a ‘yes.’ So, in this test, there will be the possibility of writing ‘no’ or ‘yes’. And then the opportunity to write in the religion if you’ve ticked the ‘yes’ box…” he said.


“So we will test this. But the fact that we are testing it should not be taken as indication that that’s where we’re going to end up. The possibility of having an updated version of the 2021 census question remains very much an option.

“It will not simply be the results of the test that will matter. I am also very happy to have representations from religious groups, if they wish to meet with us – very happy to do that.”

The Catholic Church is also opposing replacing the list of the top religious affiliations with a box for all religious people to write their affiliation.

However, Dr Gruen said it had been faith groups that complained about listing some affiliations but not others.

The RSA understands that the ABS has been consulting with some pro-secular and non-religious groups.

Dr Gruen told the hearing the Census religion question was a “sensitive topic” and many people had “strong views”.

“We will not be in a position to satisfy everyone. But we will take this decision very seriously. And it is not our aim to be doing something that is seeking to make people’s lives more difficult than they are.”

Late last month, the Census21 campaign – supported by the Rationalist Society and a number of other pro-secular groups – raised concerns with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the Catholic Church’s calls for the government to interfere in the work of reformulating the Census religion question.

The spokesperson for Census21, Michael Dove, told Mr Albanese that the Catholic Church’s concerns about the proposed changes to the question were misplaced and would work against the interests of all users of Census results.

During a two-year consultation process, the public identified the bias in the existing question – ‘What is the person’s religion?’ – as a major concern. In submissions to the consultation, Census21 argued that the loaded question produced results that overstated religious affiliation and failed to deliver accurate and meaningful data.

*A revision has been made to make it clear that the RSA understands that the ABS has also been consulting with some pro-secular and non-religious groups.

Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

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