Journalist: Isabel Moussalli.
Sitting outside on a couch, surrounded by art supplies and red dirt, traditional owner Jocelyn James tries to convince her community to answer some personal questions for the government.
Speaking in Kriol, she tells a resident “this census means to count the people here in this community, in this Mulggan camp”.
“Because people don’t have houses, they sleep in the bush and they want one for themselves … that’s why we’re trying to count all the people in this community.”
The information collected in the census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is used to guide government policies.
But in this remote Aboriginal community, located in Mataranka in the Northern Territory, residents are especially hopeful it will improve overcrowded and dilapidated housing.
Jawoyn woman Jessie Bonson is part of the bureau’s huge effort to ensure the half-a-million people living in remote areas are included in the census.
“It really impacts them if the numbers are wrong, so if we’re here to get it right, that’s really going to empower communities,” she said.
Her role is to build trust and employ local people to engage with the public.
The operation on the ground takes weeks and involves educating people about the census and supporting them to complete it correctly.
“Sometimes people are hesitant to put everyone’s names on the forms at the start because they think it might go to Centrelink or Housing or Territory Families,” Ms Bonson said.
“But it’s explaining to them ‘no, it’s census, this is all confidential, none of this information gets shared’.”
Closing the data gap
After the last census in 2016, a review found 17.5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted.
But the bureau’s director for remote area strategy, Andrew Stidston, said the pandemic and its related travel restrictions has led to more recruitment of field officers from within communities – a move that could build trust.
“With the COVID situation, it’s really important that we don’t bring in people from outside the area,” he said.
“Recruiting local has real benefits for us … people with local knowledge understand the terrain, the area and have a much better cultural awareness.”
Mr Stidston said this year’s census also focussed on employing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“We have a number of remote area management teams this time round, made up entirely of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is exciting and a real step forward for us,” he said.
In an attempt to count every Australian, census staff visit all parts of the country, from cattle stations to roadhouses.
NT Shelter, which represents affordable housing and homelessness, welcomed a boost to local recruitment.
But its northern Australia regional coordinator, Michael Byrne, warned there were still issues, like the interpretation of questions.
“The sector believes that there’s a massive undercount of homeless youth because they don’t necessarily identify as being homeless because they’re couch surfing,” he said.
At the last census, 116,427 people were recorded as homeless, up from 102,439 in 2011.
But the pandemic could see this figure rise.