1001.0 - Australian Bureau of Statistics -- Annual Report, 2006-07  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2007   
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Section II - Introduction

Chapter 1 - Indigenous Australian statistics


Sunday 27 May 2007 marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, in which more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to give the Australian Government the power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to include all Indigenous Australians in official estimates of the Australian population.

In the forty years since the 1967 Referendum, there have been significant improvements in the range, quality and availability of statistics about Indigenous Australians. Working with other agencies, the ABS continues to increase the breadth and quality of Indigenous statistics and increase its commitment to expanding and improving the National Statistical Service by responding to the needs of the broader community.


After ten years of campaigning, the Australian Government agreed to hold a referendum in 1967. It is important to recognise the significance of the people’s movement in making this historic change. Many people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, campaigned extensively, with the vision of achieving a real sense of citizenship for Aboriginal Australian people through the referendum.

A ‘no’ case was not formulated as part of the referendum campaign, as the majority of parliamentarians supported the amendments.

The original Australian Constitution made two references to Australia’s Indigenous persons in Sections 51(xxvi) and 127:

51. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:-

(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

127. In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

The 1967 Referendum question asked of voters was:

Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?

An overwhelming majority (90.8 per cent) voted YES to the change, the highest YES vote ever recorded in a federal referendum.

Source: The 1967 Referendum: Important Facts and Interesting Pieces of Information, Reconciliation Australia, 2007


There is a misconception that the first attempts to enumerate Indigenous Australians occurred as a result of the 1967 Referendum. In fact, a question on people’s race has been asked in all Australian censuses since 1901. Information was collected but not used in official population figures if people reported being of ‘more than 50 per cent Aboriginal blood’. However, prior to the 1966 Census, remote areas of Australia, largely uninhabited by non-Aboriginal Australian people, were not enumerated. During that time, estimates of Indigenous Australians were made by authorities responsible for native welfare.

Prior to the 1947 Census, Torres Strait Islanders were regarded as Aboriginal and treated in the same way as Aboriginal Australians. They were excluded from population figures if they were of ‘more than 50 per cent Torres Strait Islander blood’. However, in the 1947 Census, Torres Strait Islanders were regarded as Polynesian and were included in official counts. In the 1954 and 1961 Censuses, they were regarded as Pacific Islanders and again included in official counts. For the 1966 Census, Torres Strait Islanders were once again classified as Aboriginal, and excluded from official figures. For further information on the history of the enumeration of Indigenous Australians in the census, see Occasional Paper: Population Issues, Indigenous Australians, 1996 (cat. no. 4708.0).

Graph 1A.1: Indigenous counts and estimates, 1901–2006
Graph 1A.1: Indigenous counts and estimates, 1901–2006

Note: Censuses were held in 1901, 1911, 1921, 1933, 1947, 1954, 1961, 1966, 1971, 1976, 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2006. Pre-1966 figures are official estimates of the Indigenous population. Torres Strait Islanders are excluded from 1947 and 1966 figures.

Source: ABS Census data 1901–2006.

All censuses from 1986 onwards have been supported by a special Indigenous Enumeration Strategy, aimed at improving census awareness, forms design and field procedures, to facilitate the effective enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, particularly those living in remote areas.

The census count of Indigenous Australians increased from 116 000 to 455 000 between 1971 and 2006. After adjusting the census count for a number of factors, including people who were not counted in the census and those who did not state their Indigenous status, the Australian Indigenous population at 30 June 2006 was estimated to be 517 200 or 2.5 per cent of the total population. Among the Indigenous population, 463 900 or 90 per cent were estimated to be of Aboriginal origin only, 33 100 or 6 per cent were of Torres Strait Islander origin only and 20 200 or 4 per cent were of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.

Table 1A.1: Indigenous census counts and Estimated Resident Population, 1971 and 2006
State / Territory
Census count
Estimated Resident Population

% of total Indigenous population


(a) Preliminary experimental estimates of the Indigenous population
(b) Includes Other Territories in 2006
Source: ABS census data 1971 and 2006;
Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006 (cat. no. 4705.0)

Since the early 1990s, the ABS has established a regular program of Indigenous statistical activity including:

    • producing Indigenous population estimates and projections
    • implementing the Indigenous Enumeration Strategy for censuses
    • conducting 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 and territory level estimates, and cover remote and non-remote areas of Australia
    • conducting other surveys commissioned by external agencies, such as the 1999, 2001 and 2006 Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey
    • publishing experimental Indigenous Australian labour force estimates from the Labour Force Survey
    • releasing Indigenous Australian data in major ABS collections including schools, births, deaths and corrective services statistics
    • working with other agencies to improve the quality of Indigenous Australian identification in administrative collections, known as the Indigenous Administrative Data Project, and
    • contributing to understanding the social conditions of Indigenous Australian people through an ongoing analytical work program.
A major activity in 2006–07 was the establishment of a new Advisory Group for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (AGATSIS), which replaces a number of survey or project-specific advisory groups, to provide advice to the ABS on advancing its program of Indigenous statistics and setting future strategic directions. A number of Indigenous Australians are represented on AGATSIS. Other members include senior staff from the government and research sectors.

After reviewing the current policy context of Indigenous Australian affairs and consulting extensively with stakeholders, the issues paper entitled ABS Directions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (cat. no. 4700.0) was released in June 2007. The following key strategic areas were identified to guide the new or enhanced statistical activity:

    • engagement with Indigenous communities, policy makers, researchers and other users of Indigenous statistics
    • understanding and measuring Indigenous wellbeing
    • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youth
    • Indigenous engagement in economic activity
    • improved reporting and analysis of comparisons over time, and
    • regional data: improved capacity to support regional and small area analysis.
An important element of the work program is the Indigenous Community Engagement Strategy, the centrepiece of which is the recruitment of state and territory based Indigenous Engagement Managers (IEMs). With the support of the National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics and the state and territory regional offices, the IEMs:
    • build and maintain networks with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations
    • fulfil the role of State Indigenous Manager in the census and undertake a dissemination role, returning user-friendly information to communities and Indigenous organisations
    • promote ABS products and services and provide training and advice to Indigenous communities and organisations on the use of statistics
    • assist in the development of appropriate collection methodologies and contribute to the successful conduct of ABS Indigenous surveys (for example, IEMs are currently assisting in the development of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2008)
    • support data analysis and validation processes with community level local knowledge, and
    • provide a mentoring role for Indigenous Australian staff.


The ABS is also developing a Reconciliation Action Plan in 2007, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. As part of its commitment to improving the quality of life and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, the Reconciliation Action Plan will set out the specific actions that the ABS will take in the coming years to:

    • improve its recruitment and retention of Indigenous Australians
    • promote cultural awareness within the ABS and the wider community
    • build statistical literacy among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
    • increase the relevance and quality of statistical information relating to Indigenous Australians, and
    • enhance its engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, to maximise the relevance and value of data collected and produced, and to encourage accurate interpretation of results.
In 2006–07, the ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Recruitment and Retention Plan 2007–2010 was also developed. This initiative is ongoing under the Workplace Diversity Program, and is closely linked to the objectives of the Reconciliation Action Plan.

Dan Black and Barbara Dunlop were instrumental in developing the ABS’ Indigenous statistics work program. Both Dan and Barbara retired in 2007.

Dan Black and Barbara Dunlop were instrumental in developing the ABS’ Indigenous statistics work program. Both Dan and Barbara retired in 2007.

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