The development of Australia as a multicultural society and the subsequent wider interest in constructing statistical profiles of particular ethnic or cultural groups has, over the years, increased the demand for quality data relating to cultural and language diversity.
Since the time of British settlement, cultural and language diversity in Australia has been widely influenced by immigration. There is significant community interest in measuring the ethnic and cultural composition of the Australian population and in identifying the characteristics of particular migrant community groups. An important element of cultural and language diversity in Australia is the extent to which Australians retain the culture, ethnicity or language of their parents. Retention of cultural and language diversity is determined by the Country of Birth variables, in association with variables such as Indigenous Status, Religious Affiliation, Year of Arrival in Australia and language variables such as First Language Spoken, Proficiency in Spoken English and Main Language Other Than English Spoken At Home.
Indigenous Status is a separate variable measuring a specific element of ancestry, namely whether a person is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. However, it does not necessarily provide information on all elements of a person's ancestry.
It is strongly suggested that the Ancestry variable be used in conjunction with these variables in order to identify particular ethnic origin or cultural groups, as it provides a self assessed measure of ethnic origin and cultural background. However, Ancestry in the Australian context is complex as there are many Australians with origins and heritage that do not, in practice, relate to their current ethnic identity. Ancestry data alone, therefore, is not considered a good measure of service needs or the extent to which persons from certain backgrounds are associated with advantage or disadvantage. When Ancestry data is used alone, it should only be done to represent a broad measure of cultural diversity.
A major advantage of the Ancestry variable is that it is able to measure an association with ethnic and cultural groups which do not equate directly to countries or languages and thus cannot be readily identified using country of birth or language variables. For instance, the Ancestry variable assists in the identification and measurement of ethnic and cultural minorities which exist or originate within particular countries, ethnic and cultural groups which form a distinct unbroken geographic block across neighbouring country borders, and ethnic and cultural groups which are located in many disparate countries across the world.
The Ancestry variable was included in the 1986 Census of Population and Housing but was not included in the 1991 or 1996 Censuses. However, due to an increasing demand for these data by many groups in the community, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) included an Ancestry question in the 2001, 2006 and 2011 Censuses.
The Ancestry variable was developed by a working group comprising the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection DIBP), the Multicultural Affairs Unit of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Australian Bureau of Statistics and was officially endorsed in 1999 as one of the standard set of indicators for use in measuring cultural and linguistic diversity. It is to be progressively implemented in administrative and service settings to provide data to determine, measure and monitor service needs (in terms of access and equity requirements), and to provide a measure of cultural diversity in its broader sense.