Recognising indigenous populations in the Census: a short history

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is an ABS data expert with huge intellect and capacity to convert demographic data into profound insights about places. He has contributed numerous blogs and consulting projects covering economic development, housing consumption and affordability, migration, fertility, ageing, role and function of ‘place’, communities of interest and more. Glenn works with over 120 councils bringing the client perspective into the development of our information products. He is a Census data expert, having worked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 10 years. If there's anything Glenn doesn't know about the Census, it's probably not worth knowing - so ask Glenn!

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5 Responses

  1. Joe Lane says:

    Everybody seems to make a huge mistake in ‘reading’ the Census data since 1971 respecting the Indigenous population. Try this as an exercise: take the data in the 2011 Census and extrapolate back to 1971. Even if you build in ‘no mortality’, the population back in 1971 will turn out to be vastly more than the official figures. With mortality, even greater. I’ve estimated the1971population, on that basis, at somewhere between 300,000 and 340,000.
    This has many implications:
    * certainly the Indigenous population hasn’t risen anywhere near as much as we all would have liked; in fact, it has hovered around 2.5 % of the Australian total ever since 1971;
    * the Indigenous birth rate has been much lower than assumed, and in fact may have been lower than the Australian average since the 1996 Census; it may not be increasing at all, and may even be very slowly declining;
    * yes, Indigenous children form around 4 % of all Australian children, but after the age of about 20-25, the proportion consistently falls dramatically. Part of this may be due to increasing mortality, but given that each year, the number of migrants entering Australia amount to twenty years’ of Indigenous births, pulling back the proportion of age-groups older than 20-25 who are Indigenous.
    * Re-identification has massively boosted the Indigenous count since 1971, but it is possible that a process of DE-identification may kick in as the urban, working population inter-marries and happily disperses across urban landscapes. If there appears to be a lower growth in the 2016 Census count, this may be one reason.
    Just as an aside, perhaps slightly related, currently more than forty thousand (40,000) Indigenous people are university graduates. The equivalent of about 22 % of the 25-yr-old age-group graduates each year, and that is rising by about 8 % p.a. Overwhelmingly , graduates are urban, mainstream and women. Around 40-45 % go on to post-graduate study.
    I’ve been following and collating data for Indigenous university participation since about 1990, and many years ago, put forward the suggestion that there could be fifty thousand graduates by 2020; this now looks like likely, a year or even two before that date. Perhaps a new target of 100,000 by 2030-2032 should be put up. The big question is: at what point will graduates form a critical mass and shat will ‘it’ do ?

    • Thanks for the additional info. It’s certainly the case that there would have been a much lower rate of identification back in 1971, no-one is disputing that. And your comment about migration makes sense. More migrants will tend to reduce the proportion of indigenous population (and indeed Australian-born and other birthplaces not featuring in the current migrant intake) by simple mathematics. University degrees are increasing across the whole population, not just indigenous, and I expect another big increase in the 2016 Census (see my blog about Crystal Ball Gazing for the specific prediction).

      In the end the most important thing about the referendum is that it recognized the Aboriginal population as people, as Australians and as part of the population, it’s hard to believe that only 50 years ago this was not the case, but also heartening the huge level of support that this referendum received.

  2. Joe Lane says:

    That last paragraph is rubbish, with respect. Of coursethey were recognised a people, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Indigenous people – my wife, for example – already had the vote. They had been formally British subjects since the beginning of settlement/invasion. Like the rest of us, they became citizens with the Citizenship Act of 1949.
    My point about re-identification and the low numbers in earlier Censuses is that the people were there – they didn’t suddenly appear fully-formed out of nowhere to be suddenly counted in later Censuses. They already existed. Therefore, nobody in their right mind can use the early Census figures as if they are comparable to later ones. Just try it: work back from the 2011 Census, age-cohort by age-cohort, building in rough estimates for mortality: you will find that the earlier Census figures were grossly inadequate, but people were THERE, counted or not ! That knocks the daylights out of any suggestion that population growth has been very high. No it hasn’t. Neither has the birth-rate been remarkable: even if you compare the 1996 figures with the 2011 figures, you can see that the size of the 0-4 age-group has not risen all that much, and on figures adjusted from the 2011 Census, the growth since 1996 has been barely 1 % p.a.

    In fact, I’m amazed how slowly the Indigenous population has grown since 1971, if you adjust the figures back from the 2011 Census. Perhaps barely 1.5 p.a., or less. Try it. Earn your money 🙂

    • Of course they were people, but the fact remains they were not counted as part of the population. And yes, most already were able to vote, and indeed voted in this referendum! I understand your point about the growth. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the number counted in the Census in 1971 was a “true” figure. The general consensus is that the Census number is still an undercount. I wonder how long the level of identification can continue to grow each Census though.

  3. Ian Bowie says:

    On a somewhat different tack, your piece raises for me difficult questions about aboriginality and about how many indigenous persons there really are in Australia. The Census is not helpful on these. While it reports data separately for all respondents in Australia and, since 1967 (with no obvious justification for a separate accounting other than the repeal of s127 of the Constitution), it reports separately data on people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait ‘ origin’ whatever that might mean [‘origin’, not ‘descent’]. At the 2011 Census somewhat over half a million respondents chose to identify as having ATI ‘origin’, perhaps meaning they have some blood connection to aboriginality. I doubt that the numbers with any significant blood or cultural connection with aboriginality are anywhere like this ‘origin’ number: less than a quarter of people of ATI origin claimed aboriginal ancestry! Over 80% spoke only English at home; barely 10% claimed to speak an aboriginal language.

    For me this raises also questions about ancestry as reported more generally from the Census. It seems that ‘ancestry’ must mean different things to different respondents, eg ethnic origin (Maori – which could refer to New Zealand Maori or Pasifika Maori), cultural origin (Jewish – which might or might not refer to a religion also), place origin (English), national origin (New Zealand), which means that the results reported on ancestry are pretty well useless. What should my wife report when she is a Jewish Australian but not an Australian Jew and whose ancestors came from what are now Western Europe, Lithuania and Poland via England? Or, what should I report as a New Zealand born pakeha descended from probably anglo-celtic ancestors who lived in various countries including some Australian colonies? Perhaps our children should do as most of aboriginal origin clearly do – claim Australian ancestry?

    I guess that my core concern in all of this is that there are people who use Census data on aboriginality such as it is for political ends, notably for a separate treatment (including in our Constitution) of everyone descended from ATI people. That is alien to the idea that I am, we all are, Australian. To make my own political statement I do not see a case for a separate treatment in this country of anyone here on the basis of race. Rather, the case is for targetting gross social and economic injustice where-ever and to whosever it occurs.

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