Australian census data represents the gold standard of demographic information.  Here we highlight some of the fabulous insights it gives us, but sound cautionary notes about its limitations and potential misuse.

Cultural Diversity – The Facts and Figures

  • Australia’s population exceeded 25 million in August 2018.
  • Population growth was an estimated 1.6% in the year to March 2018.
  • In 2016 – almost half Australians (49%) were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.
  • Australia has the highest proportion of overseas-born people of all OECD countries exceeding 10 million.
  • In FY17 539,000 people entered Australia and 277,000, including Australian citizens and permanent residents, departed – providing evidence of the dynamic nature of Australia’s demography. There was a new arrival every 58.5 seconds.
  • With a net overseas migration of 262,000 in FY17, Australia was the fastest growing country in the OECD. On balance, there was a new migrant every 2 minutes.
  • In FY17, there were almost four times as many migrants from India and China as from the UK, with the UK comprising only 7.5% of permanent additions.
  • In 2016, the top five reported birth countries among the 28% of overseas-born Australians were England (14.7%), New Zealand (8.4%), China (8.3%), India (7.4%) and the Philippines (3.8%); a further 285 different countries of birth were reported.
  • Over the ten-year period 2006-2016, members of non-Christian faith groups almost doubled.
  • Islam is now the largest single non-Christian religion (more than 604,000 adherents).
  • In 2016, more than one in five Australians (22.3%) were speaking a language other than English at home. The top five reported languages were Mandarin (2.7%), Arabic (1.5%), Cantonese (1.3%), Vietnamese (1.3%) and Italian (1.2%); a further 500 languages were reported, including 150 Australian indigenous languages.
  • In 2016, 318 different ancestral origins were reported.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing, 2016, TableBuilder Pro
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Demographic Statistics, March Quarter 2018, Catalogue No. 3103.0 (20 September 2018)
The Scanlon Foundation, ‘Mapping Social Cohesion: National Report’, December 2018
Department of Home Affairs, Historical Migration Statistics, May 2018


Census Data – Strengths and Limitations

The Australian census is a brilliant resource to support public sector and commercial decision-making.  Its frequency, content coverage, respondent compliance, and administration, have resulted in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) being recognised as one of the world’s leading census agencies.  Without question, the census offers a valuable resource for any marketer with an interest in the area-based CALD fabric of Australian society.

But, even at local geographical levels of the SA1, SA2 or local government area, census data represents an aggregated, area-based view of ethnic diversity.  Consequently, the census does not help organisations to understand the diversity of an its unique population and how different cultural segments perform on the various key measures relevant to individual businesses.

There are also cases where, despite the best of intentions, census data can be misused.

Some organisations conduct surveys of employees that may include questions such as country of birth, or other measures of cultural heritage.  The results from these surveys often provide interesting and useful summaries from those surveys when considered on their own.

But it is poor practice to compare the results of those surveys with results from the ABS census.  Reasons for this assertion include:

  • Time difference between the in-house survey and the census survey
  • Differences in the way questions are asked, as well as the context in which those questions are asked
  • Differences in the obligation/onus to complete, and its impact on response rates, response quality and response consistency
  • Differences in the quality control standards of response processing
  • Differences in the way results are collated, processed, aggregated and reported
  • Differences in the handling of non-response and ‘inadequately described’
  • In cases where ‘country of birth’ is asked, it is only a partial measure of cultural diversity.

Essentially, the two forms of data collection are not compatible, and results cannot be claimed to represent a like-for-like comparison of the two populations.  So, the validity of taking results from employee applications forms or an employee survey, and then comparing this with results from 2016 census respondents is highly suspect, potentially producing a flawed basis for strategy development.

Origins data provides managers with individual cultural and linguistic dimensions of customers, clients, prospects and employees within the organisation.  Cultural, Ethnic and Linguistic (CEL) codes assigned to individuals provide the means to understand customer behaviour by cultural segment and, used appropriately, facilitate decisions and actions at the individual level.  Origins profiles produced in this way have the added advantage of like-for-like comparison with a view of the market that has been compiled using the same methodology.  To see how we do this, visit Origins Products & Services.