How forms inform us

Featured in

  • Published 20140805
  • ISBN: 9781922182425
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IT SEEMS WE are regularly filling in forms of one kind or another: forms for banks, the government, rental agencies, insurance companies and whatever other institutions insist upon extracting information from us before providing service.

All these forms have a subtext. They tell a story about our country. The institutionalised bias, the unrealised assumption, the thoughtless oversight: all revealed in forms.

One of the simplest ways to explore this subtext is to look to one of Australia’s more significant forms: the national Census.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘The Census is the only way to get information on how many people there are in each part of Australia, what they do and how they live.’

Sure, the Census is a snapshot. It provides a small insight into our country and its people, viewed through the lens of box ticking. Still, to be mindful of the subtext is surely the work of the people working on our greatest form? Surely being mindful is the reason that, from 1971 onwards, people were no longer ‘required to state their race and, where race was mixed, to specify the proportion of each’. We no longer like the subtext of asking someone if they are a quarter this or three-quarters that.

MINDFULNESS IS ONE aspect of change, the gaze of national interest is another. As stated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Since the first national Census in 1911, the content of Censuses has changed. Some topics have been included in each Census since 1911, for example, age, marital status and religion, while others have been included or excluded depending on the importance of the topic at the time. Topics selected for a Census must have specific purposes which are of national importance. There must be a demonstrated need for the Census data for policy development, planning and program monitoring. Over the years, the wording of some Census questions has varied, some questions have been discontinued and new questions have been introduced.’

‘Occupation’ is a category that has been included in every national census. Occupation is usually defined as a job or profession, however it can also be defined as a way of spending time. By either definition, one can only assume that the question of how Australians spend their working days is of ‘national importance’. That explicit information about how Australians work would usefully inform the work of government and non-government organisations.

But the choice of the word ‘occupation’ was considered in time for the 2006 census. A change was made to confirm that ‘occupation’ did quite clearly mean paid employment. Unpaid work was included for the first time in the 2006 census and then again in the 2011 census. ‘In 2006, unpaid work was asked for the first time. These questions include unpaid domestic work, unpaid care due to a disability, long-term illness or old age, unpaid child care and voluntary work.’

So, incredibly belatedly, the concept of ‘work’ was distinguished from ‘occupation’. Paid or unpaid – the difference was noted.  In so doing, the Census shifted the national gaze from paid work alone to include expanded concepts of work.  But did it shift far enough? How do you spend your days? What work do you do? Paid? Unpaid? How has this changed year by year since you left school? In the hours that are not filled with pleasure, sleep or en route somewhere – how do you occupy yourself? What makes up your work?

AND SO TO my last Census experience in 2011…My whole existence boiled down to:

Question 52.

In the last two weeks did this person spend time looking after a child, without pay?

* only include children who are less than fifteen years of age

* mark all applicable responses

() No

() Yes, looked after my own child

() Yes, looked after a child other than my own


A ‘working’ person had twelve questions about ‘their work’ – some quite detailed.

The census was actually more interested in the detail of my unpaid domestic work – not including children…

Question 50.

In the last week did this person spend time doing unpaid domestic work for their household?

*Include all housework: food/drink preparation and cleanup, laundry, gardening, home maintenance and repairs, and household shopping and finance management.

() No, did not do any unpaid domestic work in the last week

() Yes, less than five hours

() Yes, five to fourteen hours

() Yes, fifteen to twenty-nine hours

() Yes, thirty hours or more

The opportunity to take a complete picture of work in our nation – a nation that includes millions of employed individuals as well as millions of families – was missed. The work of parents and grandparents skipped over. There is no interest in the work of raising children.

The anger and grief I felt on Census night in 2011 has dulled with time. But every form I am presented with since reignites it.

Again and again I see how everyday tools reinforce that money and paid work are the main event and that the work of parenting, families and thoughtful child rearing are not really relevant. Our children are our future. Raising our children is the unpaid work of a huge percentage of our population. How we raise our children plays a huge part in the future of our nation.

Surely the national Census should have some interest in that? Surely all work is of interest. The work of parents and grandparents contributes many things to their families, their communities and our country. In a nation that is turning ever more to paid childcare, statistics on the work of parents is vital.

The subtext of the Census and of the vast majority of forms in Australia at this time is that paid work is relevant and, in recent years, volunteering and some unpaid caring is also relevant.

But parenting? If you are lucky they will include that special last box just for you:  

() Other

Share article

About the author

Kate McMurray

Kate McMurray lives with her partner and two sons in the Adelaide Hills. They spend their time with chooks and Wwoofers (Willing Workers On...

More from this edition

The clear days

MemoirI am not pitying myself, because I chose it. Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question...

Bending over backwards

ReportageIN MARCH 2012 I found myself sitting on the floor of a living room in a suburb forty minutes’ drive from the centre of...

Aesthetic suicide

PoetryMy daughter, who loves Andy Warhol, was horrifiedby your Super-8 re-enactment of his attempted executionby Valerie Solanas, who wrapped her bullets in silver foiland...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.