Liberal politician adds voice to Catholic Church crusade against change to Census question

Si Gladman / 18 May 2024

A Liberal Party politician is backing the Catholic Church’s crusade for the Albanese government to block proposed changes to the Census religion question.

South Australian upper house member Jing Lee (pictured) has placed a motion on the Notice Paper calling on the federal government to reject the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) proposal to change the question for the next Census in 2026.

Following a two-year community engagement process, the ABS revealed that the public had raised “potential bias in the question wording” as a major concern, with nearly 200 submissions addressing the topic.

The Rationalist Society of Australia, as part of a joint campaign with other pro-secular organisations, has argued that the inherent bias in the existing religion question – “What is your religion?” – inflated the religion result and needed to change.

The ABS is currently testing a reformulated question – “Does the person have a religion?” – and new mechanism for answering.

The Catholic Church, however, has launched an effort to pressure the Albanese government to block the proposal. According to Catholic media, Catholic leaders have been writing to the Prime Minister, urging the government to intervene.

Ms Lee’s arguments in her motion largely mirror points made in Perth Archbishop Tim Costelloe’s recent opinion piece on the matter in The Australian.

She argues that the proposed new Census question “disengages religion from culture and identity”. The motion also says “accurate, consistent measure and comparable data is vital” for religious groups.

RSA Executive Director Si Gladman said anyone who cared about the accuracy of Census data should support the ABS proposal.

“If the Catholic Church were really concerned about ensuring the accuracy of Census data, it would support the proposed change to the text of the question,” he said.

“The question used in past censuses is clearly flawed, presuming all respondents have a religion. This built-in bias has produced inflated results favouring religion.

“With governments and policymakers using Census data to inform decisions and resource allocation, religious institutions – including the Catholic Church – have unfairly benefited.”

Mr Gladman said the Catholic hierarchy’s campaign against changing the religion question was likely driven by fear of losing even more “cultural Catholics”.

“The next Census in 2026 will likely be a watershed moment for our nation, with the proportion of Australians identifying as not religious set to overtake Christians and the total religious affiliation set to fall below half the population,” he said.

Regardless of whether the proposed changes end up in the next Census, the proportion of Australians identifying as not religious is on track to go well beyond 40 per cent – from 39.8 per cent in 2021 – and surpass Christianity. 

Of 43.9 per cent of people who marked ‘Christianity’ at the 2021 Census, 20 per cent were Catholic. As the ABS noted, while Catholicism declined from 22.6 per cent at the 2016 Census, immigration from countries of high Catholic populations, such as the Philippines, helped to slow the decline. 

Between 2016-21, Bishop Costelloe’s own diocese of Perth witnessed a decrease of 18,542 people

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Si Gladman is Executive Director at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Image: Jing Lee (Facebook)

All the more reason.