Earlier this month the Bureau of Statistics, apparently hoping to deter Wayne Swan from cutting its allocation in the May budget, made a grab for publicity with a report on the characteristics of “the average Australian”. In the process it broke its own rules.
The ABS applied mathematical magic to data from the 2011 census and sent the media off in search of a blonde brown-eyed 37 year old woman with two photogenic children aged nine and six, two cars and a mortgage of $1800 a month on her three bedroom home. Edna Everage’s granddaughter was born here (like her parents), describes herself as Christian, weighs 71.1 kg, and works as a sales assistant…
Start packing your bags. The ABS decision to build a suburban Frankenstein for the sake of a publicity boost risks returning us to the point in recent history when certain people were labelled “unAustralian” if their language or behavior did not match the world view of Alan Jones, John Laws, Neil Mitchell or Andrew Bolt.
The ABS has played into the hands of those titans of talkback who like to keep the message simple. They’re not interested in this qualifier the ABS included at the end of the report to salve its conscience: “While many people will share a number of characteristics in common with this ‘average’ Australian, out of nearly 22 million people counted in Australia on Census night, no single person met all these criteria. While the description of the average Australian may sound quite typical, the fact that no-one meets all these criteria shows that the notion of the ‘average’ masks considerable (and growing) diversity in Australia.”
The columnist may indeed be correct that the best way to do this would have been to use medians, rather than averages. But, the bigger issue here seems to be the idea that there is a “suburban mold” that Australians need to fit into. Not everyone likes this image as the suburbs are often associated with homogeneous populations, consumption and behaviors to keep up with the Joneses, and middle-class conservatism. Regardless of what the statistics say or whether a majority of Australians (or Americans) live in the suburbs, these suburban critiques will likely continue.