Interview: Michael Dove on ABC Radio Regional South Australia, 28 June 2022

This is a transcript of the ABC Radio Regional South Australia interview with Michael Dove, spokesperson the the Census21 campaign, on 28 June 2022. The ABC presenter was Narelle Graham.

Narelle Graham (NG): There was a campaign in the lead-up to the census encouraging people that, if you aren’t religious, to mark the form that way – don’t feel pressured. Michael Dove is an advocate for the ‘Census21 – Not Religious? Mark ‘No Religion’’ campaign. Michael, good afternoon to you.

Michael Dove (MD): Good afternoon, Narelle.

NG: Let’s walk it back a bit. Why the need to tell people, “Hey, you know what? You can choose ‘No religion’.” Was there a bit of concern that people were marking the form along family lines in a way, Michael?

MD: Yeah, I think so. Our view was that cultural background was a key driver and that the data itself was not representing the current state of reality about how religious people are in Australia. So I guess accuracy was one of our key drivers. We felt that the question itself was flawed because the question presumes that you did have a religion. And so that really inflated the religious figures. So we wanted to just encourage people to reflect on whether or not they were religious. And, if there were, they could choose the religion which is applicable. But, if they weren’t, then they should choose the ‘No religion’ box.

NG: And, Michael, why was that seen as being important?

MD: Of course, the answers from the census, including those on religion, are really used as the kind of main evidence base by all levels of government in how they make decisions and how they allocate funding. And also they also influence the amount of voice which we hear from the non-religious. And we hear a lot of voice from various religious groups, but we don’t really hear much voice from people who are representing a ‘no religion’ perspective. If I give one example where we think that there really needs to be a review based on today’s data and the trend that we’ve seen, there’s the continuation of having a Christian prayer at the beginning of parliament and, indeed, in many local governments around Australia. We think it’s time to review whether or not that’s appropriate, given that we’re a much more diverse and less religious society, as the data today is telling us.

NG: So it does have an impact on how funding is distributed. So this is important. This is why it’s important to get this data correct. But, Michael, given that it was really only just in this latest census that the question was changed, does that mean that, when we look at this data and we say, “Well, there’s been a decline in people who identify as being religious”, really it’s perhaps not as much of a decline as we think because the form had been asking us in the past to really select a religion, even if it was ‘other’?

MD: I have to correct you there, Narelle, because the question itself has been the same for quite a number of years going back, really, I think to the 1980s – I think that was the last time the question was changed. The question says, “What is the person’s religion?” Our argument – and it will be the subject of our ongoing campaign – is to get the question changed so that it’s going to produce a more accurate result. So it should be, “What is the person’s religion, if any?”, rather than assuming that they do have a religion.

NG: So the question didn’t actually change last time?

MD: No, the question didn’t change.

NG: The campaign continues.

MD: Correct. What did change in 2016, to be fair, is that ‘No religion’, as a box, was positioned at the top of the list because it was the largest single group. That changed in 2016. But, really, nothing has changed between 2016 and 2021 except what’s been going on in Australian society. And we’d like to think that our campaign made some contribution to encouraging people to reflect on the extent to which they were religious.

NG: So you feel comfortable with the accuracy of the data and then what the flow-on is going to be from this data?

MD: The reality is: while we’re pleased with the increase of nine per cent over the figure which was achieved in 2016, we still feel that it’s an understatement of the true position of religiosity in Australia. There are many academically peer-reviewed surveys – robust surveys – all of which indicate that the figure is really much more likely to be over 50 per cent. So we think that we’re only part-way towards getting the accurate data that is necessary to support the policy and funding decisions.

NG: Okay. And what do you think is the flow-on effect of those funding decisions? So, if people are religious, does that then effect that money goes to religious organisations?

MD: That’s certainly been the case in the past. Many levels of government outsource services to organsiations they may provide education, or health or social services care – aged care, for example. And many of those organisations do great work – and they’re religious organisations. But we feel that it’s time to maybe tweak the conditions that that funding is provided so that the religious dimension of the organisation is downplayed so that it can be more inclusive of the much more diverse Australian population that we’re now seeing.

NG: Michael, thank you. Good to talk with you. Appreciate it.