Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Protesting Oz Census 2016: What Legal Experts Say

I spoke to some people at Liberty Victoria and a number of civil liberty, human rights and non-governmental organisations about the law in regard to Census 2016 and the potential ramifications of boycotting or protesting the threats posed to individual privacy. The advice I got is below. I hope this helps you to make an informed choice about whether and how to protest the Census.

Failing to complete any or all of the Census is NOT an offense

It only becomes an offense if, having failed to complete it at all or to omit some information (like name and/or address), the Chief Statistician orders you to complete it.

This sounds technical but is VERY, VERY important. It means that you can refuse to fill out all or part of the Census without a worry or care in the world. If, and only if, the Chief Statistician directs you to complete it, are you at risk of being fined. You can make a decision about completing it or continuing to refuse then.

Paper forms are Essential for Those Wishing to Protest the Census

Answering the Census online allow the ABS to store your IP address and precludes you omitting answer to any questions but the one about religion (which remains optional). Some have tried to provide their name and address, complete the rest of the questions on the electronic forms and then try to get back to their name and address and omit them before submitting the form. Nope, it doesn’t work.

What this means is that if you’re planning to protest the census’s privacy invasion by omiting identifying and/or other details, you’ll need the paper form The good news is that these are now easier to get from the ABS. They’ve finally got an automated system up and running so, when you ring up with the unique identifying code from your census letter, they post one to your address (and yes, this means they know where those with that unique number live).

Protest or Boycott?

As noted, you can do either without committing an offense. But if you want to take action now, or are eventually directed by the Chief Statistician to submit or complete your census, what should you do?

The safer option seems to be to protest. This means completing the census carefully and honestly but omiting your name and/or address. If the ABS decides to fine you and you refuse to pay the fine – an option it has but that most believe they would be foolish to exercise – you may be in a stronger position with a Magistrate as a conscientious objector in regard to a few questions because of privacy concerns, than as someone who has refuse to participate all together.

Why? Because those who have a feel for the Magistrate’s Court say it’s likely to be seen as reasonable and responsible to accept one’s duty as a citizens to provide data necessary for government to plan and provide services but to exclude information non-essential for that purpose and that risks one’s privacy. Census refusing, on the other hand, may be viewed as too “extreme,” and could lead to a larger fine ($1800 is the max for a census-related offense).

Just to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t boycott the census or that boycotting isn’t a valid form of protest. I’m also not saying it’s more likely to lead to a direction from the Chief Statistician to get in line. In fact, my sources believe the likelihood of the ABS taking anyone refusing to complete their census and/or pay the fine is 5/100.

However, my aim here is to honestly relay the legal advice I’ve had and this indicates that the strategy most likely to lead to a more minimal fine (say, $180), or to have one’s case dismissed with no fine at all, is protesting rather than boycotting.

What Census Protesters should NOT Do

Protest or boycott, it’s your pick. But if you’re protesting, here’s what NOT do on either your electronic or paper census form: provide false information. Unless “Person 1,” “Person 2” or “Namey McNameface” are your real names, they are false information. False information could seriously annoy a Magistrate (should you end up in front of one, see above for low odds of this). Annoyed Magistrates, and/or ones who feel you are failing to treat the purpose of the Census with due regard could fine you larger amounts than the $180/day that my informed friends are predicting will be the maximum if you refuse to give your name and/or address. Up to $1000, so watch yourself there.

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Email: leslie@cannold.com Mobile: 0417 114 859 Fax: +61 3 9348 2015 - PO Box 1337, St Kilda South VIC 3182 Australia