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