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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 21/01/2005   
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Contents >> Population >> Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population

There are no accurate estimates of the population of Australia before European settlement. Many estimates were based on post-1788 observations of a population already reduced by introduced diseases and other factors. Smith (1980) estimated the absolute minimum pre-1788 population at 315,000. Other estimates have put the figure at over 1 million, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.

Whatever the size of the Indigenous population before European settlement, it declined dramatically under the impact of new diseases, repressive and often brutal treatment, dispossession, and social and cultural disruption and disintegration (Year Book Australia 1994). The decline of the Indigenous population continued well into the 20th century.

More recently, changing social attitudes, political developments, improved statistical coverage and a broader definition of Indigenous origin have all contributed to the increased likelihood of people identifying as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. This is reflected in the large increases in the number of people who are identified as Indigenous in each census, increases in excess of those which can be attributed to natural increase in the Indigenous population.

Table 5.19 shows the distribution of the Indigenous population by state and territory between 1901 and 2001. The average annual growth rate of the Indigenous population in Australia for the five-year period 1996 to 2001 was 2.0%, approximately twice that of the total population.


5.19 ESTIMATES OF THE INDIGENOUS POPULATION(a)

1901(b)
1991(c)
1996(d)
2001(e)




no.
%
no.
%
no.
%
no.
%

New South Wales
7,434
8.0
75,020
26.5
109,925
28.5
134,888
29.4
Victoria
652
0.7
17,890
6.3
22,598
5.9
27,846
6.0
Queensland
26,670
28.6
74,214
26.2
104,817
27.2
125,910
27.5
South Australia
5,185
5.6
17,239
6.1
22,051
5.7
25,544
5.6
Western Australia
30 000
32.1
44,082
15.6
56,205
14.6
65,931
14.4
Tasmania
157
0.2
9,461
3.3
15,322
4.0
17,384
3.8
Northern Territory
23,235
24.9
43,273
15.3
51,876
13.4
56,875
12.4
Australian Capital Territory
. .
. .
1,616
0.6
3,058
0.8
3,909
0.9
Australia
93,333
100.0
282,979
100.0
386,049
100.0
458,520
100.0

(a) Australian estimates for 1996 and 2001 include Other Territories. ACT estimates for 1991 include Jervis Bay.
(b) Estimates in 1901 based on separate state censuses. WA number was estimated without an enumeration of the Indigenous population.
(c) Estimate based on the 1991 Census of Population and Housing.
(d) Estimate based on the 1996 Census of Population and Housing.
(e) Estimate based on the 2001 Census of Population and Housing.

Source: Experimental Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 1991 to 2009 (3238.0).


The Indigenous population at 30 June 2001 was 458,500 of which 134,900 (29%) lived in New South Wales, 125,900 (28%) in Queensland, 65,900 (14%) in Western Australia and 56,900 (12%) in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory had the largest proportion of its population who were Indigenous - 29% compared with 4% or less for all other states and the Australian Capital Territory.

While most of the Australian population is concentrated along the eastern and south-west coasts (map 5.15), map 5.20 shows the Indigenous population is more widely spread. The total population is contained within the most densely settled areas of the continent, while the Indigenous population live in areas covering more of the continent. This partly reflects the higher level of urbanisation among the non-Indigenous population than the Indigenous population. Indigenous people are much more likely to live in very remote areas than the non-Indigenous population. The SLAs with the highest number of Indigenous people per square kilometre were located in Darwin, whereas the SLAs with the highest densities for the population as a whole were located in Sydney.

5.20 INDIGENOUS POPULATION(a) DISTRIBUTION - 30 June 2001
Map 5.20: INDIGENOUS POPULATION(a) DISTRIBUTION - 30 June 2001

(a) Estimated resident population.

Source: Census of Population and Housing: Population Growth and Distribution, Australia, 2001 (2035.0).


The Indigenous population has a much younger age structure than that of the non-Indigenous population (graph 5.21), with 39% of the population aged under 15 years (compared with 20% of non-Indigenous people), and only 2.8% aged 65 years and over (compared with 12.8% of the non-Indigenous population). In 2001, the median age of the Indigenous population was 20.5 years, compared with 36.1 years for the non-Indigenous population.

5.21 AGE DISTRIBUTION OF THE INDIGENOUS AND NON-INDIGENOUS POPULATION - 30 June 2001

Graph 5.21: AGE DISTRIBUTION OF THE INDIGENOUS AND NON-INDIGENOUS POPULATION - 30 June 2001

(a) The 75+ age group includes all ages 75 years and over and therefore is not strictly comparable with five-year age groups in the rest of this graph.

Source: Experimental Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 1991 to 2009 (3238.0).


This age structure is largely a product of high fertility and high mortality among the Indigenous population. Although the total fertility rate among Indigenous women has fallen in recent decades, from around six babies per woman in the 1960s to 2.1 babies per woman in 2001, it remains higher than the total fertility rate among the total female population (1.7 babies per woman in 2001). The high mortality experienced by the Indigenous population is reflected in life expectancy at birth, which for Indigenous males and females born in the 1996-2001 period was 59.4 years and 64.8 years respectively; approximately 17 years less for both males and females than the life expectancy of all Australian males and all females born in the 1997-1999 period.

In 2001, 30.2% of Indigenous people lived in Major Cities compared with 67.2% of the non-Indigenous population. Proportions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations who lived in Inner Regional areas were similar (20.3% and 20.7% respectively). Residence in Outer Regional areas was higher for Indigenous people (23.1%) than for the non-Indigenous population (10.1%). The proportion of Indigenous people living in Remote or Very Remote areas (26.5%) was 13 times that of the non-Indigenous population living in those areas (2.0%).

The ABS has conducted a multidimensional social survey of Indigenous Australians. The article at the conclusion of this chapter Selected findings from the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey presents the main results of the survey of this population group.

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