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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
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Contents >> Population >> Population Growth: Growth and distribution of Indigenous people

Population Growth: Growth and distribution of Indigenous people

The 1996 Indigenous population count has increased by 55% since 1986 compared with a 12% increase in the non-Indigenous population. This partly reflects the greater willingness of people to report their Indigenous origin on the census form.

Administrators and policy makers concerned with the wellbeing of Australia's Indigenous peoples need information about the numbers and distribution of Indigenous people and their living conditions to support their work in allocating resources. For many decisions, the main source of information used has come from the 13 national censuses of population and housing conducted since the turn of the century. In recent years, census results have been refined and adjusted to give experimental annual estimates of the numbers of Indigenous people in Australia (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Population - National summary table). An examination of the data indicates substantial on-going change in the size and distribution of the Indigenous population in Australia.


Census concepts

Indigenous people are those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. More particularly, in this review, they are people who have identified themselves as being of Indigenous origin in response to questions asked in ABS Censuses of Population and Housing.

Census questions on origins have varied since 1911. From the first national census in 1911 through to the 1976 census the questions sought to identify a person's race or racial origin (e.g. European, Aboriginal, Chinese etc.). If a person was of more than one race, the mix of races was to be indicated. Since the 1981 census the word 'racial' has been omitted and the questions have simply asked whether a person is ' .. of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin'.

Indigenous families referred to in this review are couple families with children aged less than 15 years, where one or both partners have reported themselves as being of Indigenous origin on the census form.

Major urban areas are urban centres with a population of 100,000 and over. Other urban areas are urban centres with a population of 1,000-99,999. Rural areas consist of rural localities, which are all population clusters of 200-999 and other rural areas, which are the rural remainder, including people living on separate properties.

Indigenous population estimates (ERP) are produced by modifying census counts. These modifications comprise adjustments for:
  • visitors, and residents who were temporarily absent;
  • net census undercount;
  • non-response to Indigenous status;
  • age mis-statement of infants less than one year old;
  • Indigenous persons with both parents born overseas;
  • births, deaths and migration between census date and 30 June each year.1

DISTRIBUTION OF THE INDIGENOUS POPULATION, 1996

NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Australia(a)
Geographic area
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

Major urban
40.0
47.0
27.8
44.3
29.4
20.5
n.a.
98.9
30.3
Other urban
44.3
39.6
47.2
31.9
37.7
48.7
39.6
n.a.
42.3
Rural locality
5.5
2.2
11.4
3.9
12.6
8.1
27.5
0.1
10.8
Other rural
10.2
11.2
13.6
19.9
20.2
22.6
32.8
1.0
16.6
Total
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0

Total 1996 ('000)
109.9
22.6
104.8
22.1
56.2
15.3
51.9
3.1
386.0

(a) Totals include Jervis Bay Territory.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing; Experimental Estimates of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population (cat. no. 3230.0).


Size and distribution
At 30 June 1996, there were an estimated 386,000 Indigenous people in Australia (2.1% of the total population). More than two thirds lived in New South Wales (28%), Queensland (27%) and Western Australia (15%). Indigenous people comprised only a small proportion of the population in each of the States and Territories (3.2% or less), except the Northern Territory. There, the 51,900 Indigenous people represented more than one quarter (29%) of the total population.

According to 1996 Census counts, Indigenous people were generally less likely to live in major urban areas than the total population (30% compared to 63%) and more likely to live in more remote non-urban communities. However, their likelihood of living in major urban areas varied between States. This partly reflects the different settlement patterns of the total population in each State.

INDIGENOUS COUNTS(a)

(a) Includes augmented estimates for the years 1911 to 1966. Torres Strait Islanders were considered to be non-Aboriginal for the 1947, 1954 and 1961 Censuses. Asterisk denotes census years.

Source: Smith, L. R., 1980, The Aboriginal Population of Australia; Unpublished data, 1981–1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.


Population growth
The 1996 Census count of Indigenous people was substantially (55%) higher than the number counted in the 1986 Census. This growth compares with an increase of 12% in the number of non-Indigenous people in Australia.

The large population increase over the last decade has been part of a longer trend that started after the 1967 Constitutional Referendum repealed the requirement that Aboriginal 'natives' (persons with more than 50% Aboriginal 'blood') be excluded from population counts. The number of Indigenous people counted in the censuses between 1911 and 1966, augmented by estimates of traditional Aboriginal people who had been excluded, ranged between 80,000 and 100,000. Since the 1967 Constitutional Referendum the Indigenous population has more than trebled in size, while the non-Indigenous population counts grew by not quite half (47%).

Components of growth
Ongoing difficulties in measuring the main components of population change (births and deaths) among Indigenous people do not allow accurate statements to be made about the actual contribution of natural increase (ie births minus deaths) to the observed levels of growth. However, calculations obtained in the process of producing experimental estimates of the Indigenous population show that natural increase (allowing for children born to non-Indigenous women with Indigenous male partners) has accounted for about one third of the 33% growth observed between the 1991 and 1996 censuses.2

The other major source of growth comes from changes in the willingness of people to record their Indigenous status on the census form.3 The most likely group in the community to change their identification is the large and increasing number of people with mixed origins (i.e. Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry). It is possible that many of these people would have identified themselves as non-Indigenous (or perhaps not answered the census question) when policies of assimilation prevailed. However, with increasing action to enhance the status and rights of Indigenous people in the community, it is likely that their desire to identify with the Indigenous community has increased.

Legislative and administrative changes reflecting improvements to Indigenous status and rights over the last few decades have included the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1989 and in 1991 the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.4 They have also included changes in census collection strategies. These have included census awareness campaigns directed specifically at Indigenous people, together with the involvement of Indigenous people and organisations in census collection activities.5


PER CENT OF INDIGENOUS COUPLE FAMILIES(a) WITH ONE PARTNER NOT INDIGENOUS
PERCENTAGE CHANGE IN POPULATION COUNTS, 1986 TO 1996
(a) Couple families with children under 15 years, where one or both partners are Indigenous.

Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.
Source: Unpublished data, 1986 and 1996 Censuses of Population and Housing.


Identification within Indigenous families
It is not possible from recent censuses to identify the number of Indigenous people with mixed origins or to provide direct evidence of the extent to which there have been changes in willingness to report Indigenous origin. However, some insights into both of these issues can be obtained by looking at families involving mixed marriages (those in which one partner identifies as being Indigenous) and how children in those families are identified by their parents.

In 1996, close to two thirds (62%) of Indigenous families comprising a couple with children (aged under 15) had only one parent who was Indigenous, an increase from 51% in the 1986 Census. As might be expected the proportion where only one parent was Indigenous was higher in major urban areas (81%) than in other urban areas (63%) and rural areas (42%) where traditional communities are more likely to predominate.

In 1996, the majority of mixed couple families (86%) had one or more children identified as Indigenous in the census. Ten years earlier, the likelihood that children in these families were identified as being Indigenous was lower (75%). Thus, in addition to the growing number of families of mixed origins, there is an increased likelihood of a child of mixed origin being identified as Indigenous.

The higher representation of mixed origin families in major urban areas helps to account for the greater increase in numbers of people identified as Indigenous in those areas. Between 1986 and 1996, increases in the counts of Indigenous people were greatest in major urban areas (93%).

Increases were less marked in other urban areas (56%) and in rural areas (27%). In all areas, increases were much larger for counts of the Indigenous population than the total population.

The influence of inter-regional migration on the high levels of urban growth appears not to have been so important, with most Indigenous people moving within the same local area (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people).



Endnotes
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997, Population Distribution, Indigenous Australians,
cat. no. 4705.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998, Experimental Estimates of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, 30 June 1991 - 30 June 1996, cat. no. 3230.0, ABS, Canberra.

3 Taylor, John, 1997, 'The contemporary demography of Indigenous Australians', Journal of the Australian Population Association, Vol. 14, No. 1, ANU, Canberra.

4 Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, January 1993, Making Things Right: Reconciliation after the High Court's decision on Native Title, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Canberra.

5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1997, 1996 Census of Population and Housing: Nature and Content of the Census, cat. no. 2008.0, ABS, Canberra.


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