50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum

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Marking 50 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in population estimates

On Saturday 27 May, Australia celebrated a historic milestone - 50 years since the 1967 Referendum which gave Aboriginal people the right to vote. This constitutional change also meant that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were fully included in Census results for the first time, beginning with the 1971 Census.

This significant amendment to the Australian constitution was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian people, winning over 90 per cent of votes and carrying in all six states.

The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum is an extremely important milestone in the history of Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The 1967 vote clarified, for the first time, the citizenship status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

Prior to the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted towards Australia’s population, with estimates of Aboriginal people made by authorities responsible for native welfare.

Whilst some Aboriginal people had been counted in previous Censuses, 1971 marked the first time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were fully included in Census results.

These changes gave the Australian Government the ability make statistically informed decisions regarding policies aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the distribution of Commonwealth funds to state and territory governments.

Since 1971, estimates of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population have risen from about 120,000, or 1 per cent of the Australian population, to a current projected level of around 745,000 people, or 3.1 per cent of the total population.

Over the period from the 1971 Census to the 2011 Census, there has been an increase in the proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population living in New South Wales (from 21 per cent to 32 per cent) and corresponding decreases in those living in the Northern Territory (from 20 per cent to 10 per cent) and Western Australia (from 19 per cent to 13 per cent).

Since the referendum, the ABS has since expanded its program of statistical work in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, collecting a wide range of information on topics encompassing culture and language, education, employment, housing, income, and law and justice issues.

The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Census also changed how the Census was collected:

• 1971 - Special collectors are recruited to work in remote areas, with some sections of the Northern Territory and Western Australia being included in the Census count for the first time

• 1981 - Census Field Officers are introduced in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia to organise the collection of data from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas.

• 1986 - The ABS implements the Census Indigenous Enumeration Strategy (IES) with the aim of achieving the most accurate count of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in both remote Indigenous communities and elsewhere.

• 1996 - The ABS put greater effort into recruiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to work on the enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the ongoing IES to address issues related to distance, language and cultural barriers.

The success of the ABS’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surveys and other statistical activities, such as the Census is dependent on the very high level of cooperation it receives from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

2016 Census results for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be released as part of the first and main release of 2016 Census data on 27 June, 2017.