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What's behind Australia's exploding indigenous population?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Wednesday, 5 July 2017


The first results of the 2016 Census of Population and Housing were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on 27 June.  Aspects of the official Indigenous Population Count, two in particular, should raise eyebrows.  For reasons of political correctness they don't, and any disbelief has been largely suspended.  Officialdom instead continues to rationalise the figures and ignore implausible results. 

The first issue that ought to provoke scepticism relates to the states/territories with the highest measured proportions of Indigenous people in their population.  The official statistics say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up over one quarter (25.5%) of the population of the Northern Territory.  This is a totally plausible finding, but which state or territory (after the NT) comes second?

The answer (or so we are officially told) is Tasmania!  Pull the other leg!!  One would more likely expect Tasmania to have the lowest percentage of Indigenous in its population, especially given its history.

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Tasmania (4.6% of its population was counted as Indigenous in the 2016 Census) officially does come second, followed by Queensland (4.0%) and Western Australia (3.1%).  Victoria at 0.8% officially takes up the rear.  Tasmania, according to the ABS, overtook Queensland for second place in the 2011 Census. 

What is so peculiar with Tasmania supposedly being the second "most Indigenous" state or territory is that it, firstly, conflicts with observed reality, and (secondly) it greatly conflicts with historical narratives. 

A widely accepted historical narrative says that Tasmania was the scene of a swift and destructive "genocide".  Within the lifetime of Truganini, the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine, who died in 1876, a whole society and culture was said to have been wiped out (mainly by disease and to a lesser extent by pressure from annexation of land, though death from conflict with colonists was also significant).  Only a small number of mixed descent were said to have survived, mainly on Bass Strait Islands. 

The 1966 Census recorded no "full-blood" Tasmanian Aborigines, though 55 "half-bloods" were counted.  Following the move to a new definition of Aboriginal, the 1971 Census recorded 575 Indigenous in a state population of 390,413 or 0.15% of the state population.  The recorded Indigenous population of Tasmania grew to 2942 in 1976, 6716 in 1986, 8885 by 1991, and to 23572 or 4.6% of the state population in the 2016 Census.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre's Trudy Maluga saidan audit was needed to investigate possible fraud in respect of state Aboriginal eligibility policy.  "We were nearly wiped out in Tasmania, it was documented and all of a sudden these figures have popped up everywhere," she said.  "In the west and north-west of the state, 7.2 per cent of the population identified as Indigenous, while in the north and south of the state it was closer to 3 per cent...  In the 1800s, the official correspondence showed all our ancestors had been removed from those parts of the state.  So where did these people come from?" she said.  The TAC is adamant only descendants of Bass Strait Islanders are Aboriginal.  Other groups claiming Aboriginality say their ancestors escaped the round-up of Indigenous Tasmanians in the 1830s.

So there we have it.  The figures for Tasmania seem daft, and key members of the Aboriginal community believe there is a gross over-count.  Such considerations place the entire suite of Indigenous statistics for Tasmania under question. 

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A second broader issue is that the Census figures indicate that Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has grown by 18 per cent since 2011 to 649,171 (2.8 per cent of the Australian population) in 2016.  This compares with a mere 115,953 in 1971.  The Indigenous population is projected by the ABS to reach nearly a million people by 2026.  These are astonishing increases for a population largely unaffected by immigration. 

The politically correct rationalisation (recently presented, for example by National Indigenous TV News, quoting an ANU academic) is that "What we think we see is an increasing number of people who previously didn't identify as being Indigenous who are now identifying as being Indigenous, which is fantastic, to the extent that people are now comfortable identifying as such".  A senior ABS bureaucrat is also quoted as saying: "One of the things we've looked at is the increase of the identification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people...we also think we're getting better at engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people....so it is a mixture of a few things." 

Such explanations (of seemingly never-ending big rises) clearly are incomplete, given that at some point all bona fide Indigenous people will have come forward, and the ABS will eventually run out of scope to improve enumeration. 

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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