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Over the past ten years there has been a significant improvement in the range, quality and availability of statistics on Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and an increasing number of organisations have become involved in collecting, compiling and analysing Indigenous statistics. Some of the improvements involving the ABS include:
However, more remains to be done. The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, Key Indicators Report, auspiced by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and released in November 2003, illustrated the breadth of Indigenous statistics that are now available. However, it also highlighted some of the data limitations in analysing the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and in assessing Indigenous disadvantage.
This article provides an overview of recent and planned developments in the ABS work program to improve the range, quality and availability of statistics on Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The article also notes some of the data collection developments by other organisations.
ABS Work program - overview and future developments
The ABS Indigenous statistics work program incorporates the activities of its National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics together with the ABS Indigenous survey operations and the Indigenous specific activities within wider programs of data collection, compilation and analysis. The work program broadly follows the directions set in the March 2000 ABS paper Directions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics. These directions were initially determined after wide consultation with stakeholders. However, ongoing consultation with key stakeholders about the program in general and about particular elements in the program has resulted in modifications being made over time. The ABS plans to update its Directions statement in 2005 and Indigenous organisations, peak Indigenous data groups, research institutions, and relevant Australian and state/territory government agencies will be consulted on both the updating process and the priority directions that the work program might take in future.
Census of population and housing
The five-yearly census remains the centrepiece of the ABS Indigenous statistics work program, providing the basis for estimates of the Indigenous population and a wide range of socio-economic statistics, such as housing, income, employment, education and language at all levels of geography.
The range of Indigenous specific outputs has been increasing and improving each census since 1971. Indigenous specific products from the 2001 census have included:
All censuses from 1986 onwards have been supported by a special Indigenous Enumeration Strategy (IES) aimed at improving census awareness, forms design and field procedures to facilitate effective enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, particularly those living in remote areas. The 2001 census employed about 1,600 Indigenous people (over 5% of the census field staff in 2001). The development of the 2006 IES is being guided by a census IES Working Group comprising experts from Indigenous organisations, Australian and state/territory government agencies, research organisations and practitioners in Indigenous data, field procedures and protocols. In addition to improvements in awareness activities, forms design and field procedures, the 2006 IES will include the capture of more details about Indigenous persons away from their usual residence at the time of the census. These details will assist in quality assuring the census enumeration, improving the quality of Indigenous population estimates and enabling Indigenous statistics compiled on a usual residence basis to report characteristics such as household income on a more comprehensive basis.
Indigenous household surveys
The key elements in the ABS Indigenous household survey program are: a six-yearly National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey; and a six-yearly National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey. Both surveys are designed to produce national and state/territory level estimates, and cover remote and non-remote areas of Australia.
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS)
The 2002 NATSISS was developed following the 1998-99 review of the ABS household survey program. In addition to the wide consultation undertaken when developing the Directions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics, and ongoing advice from peak advisory groups such as the National Advisory Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Information and Data (NAGATSIHID), survey specific advice was also sought from a reference group comprising Indigenous experts and representatives from Indigenous organisations, government agencies and academia.
Consultation for NATSISS was very extensive with information papers being sent to many organisations including a wide array of Indigenous bodies. A range of consultation meetings were held across Australia to discuss ABS proposals for the survey and seek feedback. Focus group discussions involving Indigenous Australians were used in further refining survey content, followed by survey testing in both urban and remote areas. The final content of the 2002 NATSISS had about 50 per cent overlap with the groundbreaking 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS) conducted by the ABS.
ABS fieldwork conducted in discrete Indigenous communities involved consultation with community councils and the employment of local community members as facilitators. Some Indigenous Australians were newly recruited to the permanent ABS household interviewer panel for the 2002 NATSISS, with opportunities being pursued on an ongoing basis to increase the number of Indigenous people in the survey interviewer panel.
Initial results from the 2002 NATSISS were released on 23 June 2004 in National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (cat. no. 4714.0). The survey products available free of charge on the ABS web site include the summary of findings and associated national and state/territory media releases; a survey reference pack containing collection forms and prompt cards, data item lists, standard errors for all national tables in the initial publication, and the parallel state/territory tables released simultaneously on the web; and explanatory and technical notes.
The initial NATSISS releases cover topics as diverse as family and culture, health, disability, education, work, income and housing, law and justice, and transport. These products are indicative of the extensive range of data available from the survey and provide some insights into the analytical potential of the survey results. Key comparisons with results from the 1994 NATSIS, and with non-Indigenous results from the 2002 General Social Survey, are footnoted to indicate whether differences are statistically significant. Relevant data items have been age standardised to facilitate more relevant comparisons with statistics for the non-Indigenous population, and the 1994 NATSIS results have been rebenchmarked to reflect the significant change in Indigenous population levels between the 1991 census-based population benchmarks used when the 1994 data were first released, and subsequent experimental Indigenous population estimates based on 1996 census results.
Further analytic and microdata products are planned for the results from the 2002 NATSISS.
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS)
The 1998-99 review of the ABS household survey program also saw the planning for the NATSIHS as a six-yearly survey to coincide with every second cycle of the three-yearly ABS National Health Survey (NHS). The introduction of a more frequent NHS and the new NATSIHS in the ABS survey program was supported through funding from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing under a partnership agreement with the ABS.
As with the 2002 NATSISS, the development of the NATSIHS is guided not only by advice from NAGATSIHID, but also with the advice and assistance of the NATSIHS reference group comprising Indigenous experts and representatives from Indigenous organisations, government agencies and academia.
This health survey will also employ Indigenous facilitators in Indigenous communities, and there has been consultation with Indigenous community councils and health services in the communities to gain support and assistance with the conduct of the surveys.
Development of the 2004-05 NATSIHS has been completed and the survey will be enumerated between August 2004 and July 2005. The 2004-05 NATSIHS has significant content overlap with both the 2004-05 NHS and the Indigenous oversample to the 2001 NHS, as well as a new module on social and emotional wellbeing (adult respondents only) and expanded content in oral health, kidney disease and discrimination.
The development of the social and emotional wellbeing module for the 2004-05 NATSIHS was undertaken in partnership with both the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and AIHW. This successful collaboration was a short term development to address a high priority need for information in this area of Indigenous health, pending completion of longer term research into the most appropriate instruments and collection methods that should be used to gain population measures for this health priority.
Other ABS household surveys
The ABS Survey of Education and Training and the monthly Labour Force Survey (LFS) both incorporate an Indigenous identifier to enable Indigenous results to be produced. The four-yearly Survey of Education and Training has, from 1993, produced a range of statistics regarding Indigenous education and training participation and completion. Up until March 2001 the LFS captured Indigenous status in just one month of the year. Since then the identifier has been included in every monthly LFS collection, increasing the sample size from which to compile results and spreading the measures of employment across the year, so improving the quality of the national as well as the state and territory Indigenous estimates. The experimental results for 2002 and 2003 are expected to be released in early 2005. Other ABS social surveys, such as the General Social Survey and NHS, also include the Indigenous identifier to enable non-Indigenous results to be compiled for comparison with data for the Indigenous population collected in the NATSISS and NATSIHS.
Data from government administrative collections are an important source of information about program performance and about the circumstances of the people interacting with service providers. However the quality of the information about Indigenous Australians derived from these collections depends, in part, on the quality of the identification of Indigenous people in those systems. The ABS is working with relevant agencies through multilateral processes, such as the National Indigenous Housing Information Implementation Committee, to improve the standards for, and quality of, information derived from the various administrative systems.
Several years ago the ABS introduced its Indigenous Administrative Data Project (IADP) to target improvements in a range of administrative datasets by working bilaterally with agencies and others in each jurisdiction. The cooperation of state and territory agencies, and their enthusiasm to engage with the ABS project and extend its reach have been instrumental in progress to date.
The IADP focused initially on births and deaths registrations and hospital separations with resulting improvements in the completeness of Indigenous data from these systems. More recently the project has widened in scope to include work with a range of agencies on a number of other important datasets to encourage and facilitate the implementation of the ABS standard Indigenous identifier. As well, the IADP is providing advice on data collection practices and processes utilised by collection agencies. For example, the ABS is currently in negotiation with various police and courts jurisdictions with a view to achieving standard Indigenous identification across all police jurisdictions. Significant progress is also being made with courts administrations in various jurisdictions.
The ABS Demography program maintains a strong focus on, and commitment to, improving the availability and quality of Indigenous population estimates and projections, and vitals statistics. While the range and quality of both the population and vitals statistics have improved over the past decade, in part due to efforts to improve the source data (for example through the IADP) and in part through improving methodologies, further work is required to better meet key user needs. The ABS continues to work with the AIHW and other expert advisers, including representatives from NAGATSIHID, on Indigenous mortality data developments, and in particular on assessing whether Indigenous mortality trend data can be produced from currently available information.
In addition to the collection-specific publications, such as from the ABS census and household survey programs, a range of thematic and analytic products are being produced which either focus on or include analyses of the circumstances of Indigenous Australians. An important flagship product to highlight key statistics and issues in Indigenous health and welfare is the joint ABS/AIHW publication The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (cat. no. 4704.0). Other ABS flagship publications such as Measures of Australia's Progress (cat. no. 1370.0) and Australian Social Trends (cat. no. 4102.0) address contemporary social and public policy issues relevant to the circumstances of Indigenous Australians. The 2004 issue of Year Book Australia (cat. no. 1301.0), launched on 27 February 2004 at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, included a range of Indigenous articles.
Other Indigenous collections
In addition to the ABS census and surveys program, the ABS has collaborated with other agencies to develop, conduct and/or output results from Indigenous data collections. Principal among these has been the CHINS, conducted by the ABS on behalf of the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and with funding support from them, to provide critical information about housing stock and infrastructure adequacy in discrete Indigenous communities. CHINS was conducted in 1999, and again in 2001 when it was enumerated in conjunction with the 2001 census.
The Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) is currently developing a Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC). The ABS is represented on the LSIC Steering Committee and is working with the FaCS LSIC project team on issues in Indigenous survey design and data collection relevant to LSIC. The ABS is also consulting with the LSIC project team about planned visits to Indigenous communities for ABS survey activity (including pilot tests and dress rehearsals) to minimise the impact of such collections on communities participating in both LSIC and ABS data collection activities.
The ABS provided consultancy services and advice for the design and conduct of the recently completed Telethon Institute of Child Health Research (ICHR) Western Australia Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS). The ABS is also collaborating with ICHR on a range of analytic outputs from the WAACHS. The ABS has also assisted the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research with the design and methodology for its 2004 Survey of Indigenous Vocational Education and Training Students.
In 2004-05 the ABS will be implementing an initiative seeking to further improve the way we work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on data reporting and feedback. Following the investigation of similar initiatives in Canada, United States of America and New Zealand, the ABS is enhancing its Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy by recruiting state/territory based Indigenous engagement managers to:
The strategy also provides resources to develop more appropriate material to support Indigenous communities and organisations to access and use statistical information.
Priorities in data development
The ABS seeks ongoing advice on its Indigenous statistics work program through many channels including the Australian Statistics Advisory Council, peak groups such as NAGATSIHID, and from survey specific reference groups. The updating of ABS' Directions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics in 2005 will provide for a focused consultation process to review ABS priorities in this field of statistics.
One recent report that focused on information gaps in this field of statistics was the COAG Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, Key Indicators Report, which highlighted ten broad priorities for data development. These priorities are being assessed and in many cases are already addressed by developments in the ABS Indigenous statistics work program. For example, in the priority area of disability, data on the prevalence of disability within the adult (aged 15 years and older) Indigenous population, including whether the person has a disability or long-term health condition resulting in a profound or severe core activity restriction, and the type of disability (sight, hearing, speech, physical, or intellectual) have been released from the 2002 NATSISS. It is anticipated similar information would be included in future survey cycles. The ABS is also currently assessing the possibility of including a disability topic in the 2006 census. If disability is included it will provide a rich dataset for the analysis of disability within the Indigenous population across geography and in comparison with measures for the general population.
The COAG report also called for better income, education and employment data for the Indigenous population. The ABS Indigenous statistics work program has focused on providing these data from improvements in the census, and from its new Indigenous specific surveys either recently completed or being developed, and from the inclusion of the Indigenous identifier in its LFS and education and training survey. The recently released 2002 NATSISS results included details relating to employment and unemployment, Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), barriers to employment, discouraged job seekers, and employment support services. The basic splits of employment by CDEP/non-CDEP, long-term/other unemployment (and the related totals), and persons not in the labour force, were age standardised for comparison of the NATSISS results with those for the non-Indigenous population.
The COAG report seeks greater consistency between the definitions used in reporting water and sewerage services for the general population, and those adopted in the CHINS. If asked to undertake another CHINS collection, the ABS would work with relevant stakeholders in designing CHINS to achieve consistency with other datasets where practicable.
The continuing need for better and more detailed information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is well understood. The ABS work program has responded to this need, and is looking to its engagement strategies to provide information in ways that support Indigenous communities to participate more effectively in informed decision making. However, the burden that the information collection processes impose on the Indigenous population is noted as being already well beyond the reporting load being borne by the general community. The current and planned ABS Indigenous collection activities are designed to manage that load on Indigenous people, Indigenous communities and organisations, and to date cooperation with ABS Indigenous data collection has been very good.
The increasing 'direct' Indigenous data collection activity now being planned by other government agencies will also require careful coordination with ABS activities so as to avoid duplication of effort and to manage the burden on Indigenous peoples and their communities. The ABS will continue to look for ways to collaborate with other agencies proposing to collect information, and will continue to encourage coordinated and/or integrated approaches to communities.