About the Census

The statistical information contained in Origins has been provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which is responsible for the collection of census data. At this time only censuses up to 2016 are represented on this website. The 2021 census data is not yet reflected in the statistics.

What is a census?

A census is the official counting of the size and characteristics of the population, for social analysis and government planning. A census was first conducted in Victoria in 1854 and the first national census was taken in 1911. Since 1961, a census has been taken every five years. First Peoples were not officially included in the national census until 1971. Each census varies slightly in the characteristics it measures, which can make comparisons between censuses quite complicated.

What information is gathered in a census?

The content of censuses has varied over the years. In addition to total population numbers, some basic categories, such as ‘gender’, have always been included. Others such as ‘religion’, ‘occupation’ and ‘language spoken’ have been included less frequently, depending on the perceived importance of the topic at the time.

Details on country of birth have also varied between censuses. The fact that a country did not have a separate listing does not mean that people were not immigrating from that country. For example, prior to the 1976 Census, separate figures were not available for Cambodia as it was grouped with Laos and Vietnam.

How often is a census taken?

Since 1961, Australia has had a census every five years. Before this, censuses were less regular, but they occurred at least once a decade.

Who uses the census information?

Census information is used to support the planning, administration and policy development of governments, business and other users. It is available to the general public.

Has the census always included the First Peoples population?

The census has not always reflected a true picture of the Australian population. Prior to the establishment of Aboriginal reserves in the 1860s, Victorian censuses counted only some First Peoples, usually excluding those who were not permanently settled. After the 1860s, most First Peoples were living on reserves and were included in census counts.

As a result of legislation passed in 1901, the official census count only included First Peoples if they had some European ancestry. First Peoples who were described at the time by the offensive phrase ‘full-blooded’ were excluded. From the 1971 Census onwards, all Australians (apart from some residing overseas) have been officially included in the national census.

For further information, refer to the ABS website at www.abs.gov.au.

The 2016 Australia Census showed the Victorian population had grown to 6,244,227 people with Melbourne City becoming the third-fastest growing region in Australia. One in four Victorians or 28 per cent, were born overseas, the highest number recorded. England tied with India for the most common country of birth outside Australia, with both countries accounting for 2.9 per cent of Victoria’s population. The majority of people (68 per cent) reported that they spoke only English at home in Victoria, a fall from 72 per cent in 2011. Other common languages spoken in Victorian homes include Mandarin, Italian and Greek.

 A total of 47,788 Victorians reported having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins, an increase of 9,796 people since 2011.

The 2016 Census was the first Census to give people the option of completing their submission online, with around 63% of the population opting for the digital version.

Immigration Policy

In 2016, Australian immigration policy continued to be guided by the 1958 Migration Act, which had been frequently amended since it was first introduced. Other acts and conventions also affected immigration policy, including the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act and the 1991 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Australia accepted immigrants from any country, based on their ability to meet criteria determined by Australia’s economic, social and political needs.

 From the early 1970s Australia’s immigration levels dramatically reduced. The number of European immigrants has declined, while the number of immigrants from Asian and Middle Eastern countries has increased following the end of the White Australia policy in 1975. However, in 1990 as selection favoured skilled migration and English language proficiency there was a spike in migration from the UK, New Zealand and South Africa. In 2011, the largest group of new arrivals were from South-East Asia and this trend continues in 2016.

 In 2011, the Gillard government had signed off on the ‘Malaysia Solution’ that would have had Australia deport 800 asylum seekers to that country in return for resettling 4,000 refugees verified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Shortly after, this was placed on hold then stopped after the High Court of Australia ruled this processing of refugees to be unlawful. Offshore processing of asylum seekers resumed in 2012 with the ‘PNG Solution’.

 The international student sector has grown to become Australia’s largest service export sector. The largest numbers of students come from China, India and the Republic of Korea. In 2016 there were 554,179 international students were enrolled in Australian courses, from 190 countries.

Top 8 Countries of Origin

Country of Origin


% of Victorian Population










New Zealand









Sri Lanka







In 1961 the population of Victoria was 1,474,395. Its profile had changed dramatically with post-war immigration. While the English-born community was still the largest, with 150,621 people, the next largest were the Italy-born and German-born communities. Smaller but significant numbers from southern and eastern Europe were also making their mark. Over 200,000 refugees had settled in Australia since the end of World War II.

The suburbs of Melbourne were rapidly expanding in 1961 to cope with the increasing population. Chadstone shopping centre had just opened, and car ownership was rising. Monash University had its first intake of students, and uniform divorce laws were introduced across Australia. Computers were beginning to play a more significant role in the management of large-scale information, and were used for first time by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies had held office for 12 years, the longest term by an Australian Prime Minister.

Internationally, the Cold War was reaching its height, the Berlin Wall was being constructed and Australian soldiers were sent to quell communism at the end of the 'Malayan Emergency'.

Immigration Policy

The 1958 Migration Act finally removed references to race, opening the door to non-discriminatory policy. However, non-European immigration to Australia remained limited until the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.

Nearly three million immigrants arrived in Australia between 1945 and 1970, of whom a large proportion settled in Victoria. Australia's immigration program became the second largest in the world, relative to its population (the largest being Israel).

Almost every second immigrant came from Britain. Immigrants were also welcomed from throughout Europe in a drive to increase national security and post-war economic development.

Top 8 Countries of Origin

Country of Origin Population % of Victorian Population
England 150621 10.21%
Italy 91075 6.17%
Germany 39291 2.66%
Scotland 36876 2.50%
Netherlands 36284 2.46%
Greece 31763 2.15%
Poland 23795 1.61%
Malta 17844 1.21%

In 1901, at the time of Federation and the first national census, 1,201,341 people lived in Victoria; almost three-quarters of those were born here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people however, were not included in the national census and would not be until 1971. The largest immigrant community was the English, with 113,432 people, followed by the Irish and Scottish communities. Christians accounted for 98% of Victoria's population (36% Anglican and 22% Catholic). More than half of the population lived outside Melbourne. Melbourne dwellers generally lived either in high-density housing in the inner city and around railway stations, or on larger blocks in outer Melbourne.

Melbourne was the capital of the new nation of Australia, and the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) opened the first Commonwealth Parliament in the Royal Exhibition Building in May. The Royal Exhibition Building also hosted a competition that saw the Australian flag chosen from 30,000 entries, and the new flag first flew from the dome in September.

The Federal Government took over many functions formerly exercised by the colonies, including defence, the postal service and customs and immigration.

1901 was marked by a period of mourning following the death of Queen Victoria in January. She was succeeded by her son Edward VII. The Boer War was in its final year, with thousands of Victorians fighting for the British Empire in South Africa.

Immigration Policy

The newly federated Australian government quickly introduced national legislation to protect its security and assert its sense of identity as a member of the British Empire. One of the first acts passed was the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act - widely known as the White Australia policy. The 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act soon followed, limiting the arrival of Pacific Islanders.

During the first four decades of the twentieth century most settlers in Victoria came from Britain and Ireland. Immigration from continental Europe, Asia and the Middle East was restricted to relatively small numbers. Quota systems were established to regulate the number and type of immigrants.

Top 8 Countries of Origin

Country of Origin Population % of Victorian Population
England 113432 9.44%
Ireland 61512 5.12%
Scotland 35751 2.97%
New Zealand 9020 0.75%
Germany 7594 0.63%
China 6230 0.51%
Wales 3676 0.30%
Sweden and Norway 2207 0.18%
In 1854, when the first census of Victorians was conducted, 236,798 people lived in the colony. The largest community was English-born, with 97,943 people, followed by the Irish and Scottish communities.

The year 1854 marked a pivotal point in Victoria's history. Victoria had only been separated from New South Wales for three years, and the gold rushes saw thousands of prospectors from every continent arriving on ships each month. Melbourne became a significant thoroughfare and supply point. Temporary accommodation sprang up in places such as Canvas Town in South Melbourne and the Melbourne Immigrants' Home near the future site of Princes Bridge.

Several major institutions were founded in 1854, including the University of Melbourne, the State Library and the National Museum of Victoria. The Age newspaper was established, and a major international exhibition was held in Melbourne in a purpose-built hall at the corner of William and LaTrobe Streets. The first steam-powered passenger railway in Australia ran from Sandridge (South Melbourne) to Flinders Street, and Railway Pier, later to become Station Pier, commenced its role as the arrival point for many thousands of immigrants.

Immigration Policy

In the nineteenth century immigration policy was controlled primarily by the British Parliament. Legislation such as the 1855 Passengers Act attempted to establish uniform controls for migration throughout the British Empire and to ensure the safe passage of migrants.

In 1855 the Colony of Victoria passed Australia's first immigration act: the Act to Regulate the Residence of the Chinese Population in Victoria. This was the first of many acts to restrict immigrants from specific countries. The act was repealed when Chinese arrivals abated, although restrictions were reintroduced at the end of the nineteenth century.

Top 8 Countries of Origin

Country of Origin Population % of Victorian Population
England 97943 41.36%
Ireland 39728 16.77%
Scotland 36044 15.22%
Germany 3955 1.67%
USA 2761 1.16%
China 2341 0.98%
Wales 2326 0.98%
France 909 0.38%