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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2006  
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Contents >> Chapter 5 - Population >> Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 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 one 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. 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 5.25 shows the distribution of the Indigenous population by state and territory between 1991 and 2001. The average annual growth rate of the Indigenous population in Australia for the 5-year period 1996-2001 was 2.0%, approximately twice that of the total population.

5.25 ESTIMATES OF THE INDIGENOUS POPULATION(a)

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



'000
%
'000
%
'000
%

New South Wales
75.0
26.5
109.9
28.5
134.9
29.4
Victoria
17.9
6.3
22.6
5.9
27.8
6.0
Queensland
74.2
26.2
104.8
27.2
125.9
27.5
South Australia
17.2
6.1
22.1
5.7
25.5
5.6
Western Australia
44.1
15.6
56.2
14.6
65.9
14.4
Tasmania
9.5
3.3
15.3
4.0
17.4
3.8
Northern Territory
43.3
15.3
51.9
13.4
56.9
12.4
Australian Capital Territory
1.7
0.6
3.1
0.8
3.9
0.9
Australia
283.0
100.0
386.0
100.0
458.5
100.0

(a) Australian estimates for 1996 and 2001 include Other Territories. ACT estimates for 1991 include Jervis Bay.
(b) Estimate based on the 1991 Census of Population and Housing.
(c) Estimate based on the 1996 Census of Population and Housing.
(d) 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 (27%) 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 5.17), map 5.26 shows the Indigenous population is more widely spread. 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.

5.26 INDIGENOUS POPULATION DISTRIBUTION(a) - 30 June 2001
Map 5.26: INDIGENOUS POPULATION DISTRIBUTION(a) - 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 5.27), with 39% of the population aged under 15 years (compared with 20% of non-Indigenous people), and only 3% aged 65 years and over (compared with 13% 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.

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

Graph 5.27: 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 the other 5-year age groups.

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


This age structure is largely a product of relatively high fertility and 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 period 1996-2001 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 period 1997-99.

In 2001, 30% of Indigenous people lived in Major Cities compared with 67% of the non-Indigenous population. Proportions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations who lived in Inner Regional areas were similar (20% and 21% respectively). Residence in Outer Regional areas was higher for Indigenous people (23%) than for the non-Indigenous population (10%). The proportion of Indigenous people living in Remote or Very Remote areas (26%) was 13 times that of the non-Indigenous population living in those areas (2%).

The ABS produced projections of the Indigenous population for the period 2002-09 using the results of the 2001 Census of Population and Housing. If the unexplained growth (growth which cannot be attributed to natural increase) observed between the 1996 and 2001 censuses is assumed to continue at the same rate (high series), the Indigenous population is projected to grow from 458,500 people in 2001 to 600,200 people in 2009. Assuming no further unexplained growth in census counts of the Indigenous population (low series), Australia's Indigenous population would rise to 528,600 people in 2009. The projected average annual growth rate of the Indigenous population for the high series is 3.4% while for the low series it is 1.8%. These projected growth rates are both higher than the observed increase in the total Australian population for the 2001-02 financial year (1.2%).

Indigenous populations of all states and territories are projected to continue growing between 2001 and 2009. The rates of growth in New South Wales are projected to remain constant in both series over the projection period, while the rates of growth are projected to decline in both series in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. For Victoria, the growth rates decline slightly in the high series but remain constant after 2002 in the low series. However, in Tasmania the growth rates remain constant in the high series but increase slightly in the low series.

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