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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.


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. 


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 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. 

While the mentioned factors are important, there are two large elephants in the room. 

The first (hugely taboo subject in Indigenous affairs) is that the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults now have a non-Indigenous partner.  Non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous mothers therefore contribute to Indigenous population growth, with over 90 per cent of the children of mixed Indigenous/non-Indigenous unions being classified as Indigenous.  This alone (if it continues) can result in continuing big Indigenous population rises (a matter that occasionally receives grudging acknowledgement), though one must raise the question of whether generations with increasingly diluted Indigenous heritage can continue to legitimately claim Indigenous identity. 

The second, (affecting the Census count) is that there is a question mark surrounding the appropriateness of Australia's standard Census Indigenous Question, particularly in the light of the official definition of Aboriginality used in this country. 

While an Indigenous New Zealander is defined as "a person of the Maori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person”, Australia uses a much narrower definition.  We require Indigenous persons to not only have an Indigenous ancestor.  We also require them to identify as Indigenous.  (A third requirement of community recognition is not easily ascertainable in a household questionnaire.)  The problem, however, is that our  standard Census Indigenous Question asks only about Indigenous origin.

The Standard Question for Indigenous status used in the 1996 and later Censuses is as follows:

 There are several things wrong with this question.  Firstly the question asks about Indigenous origin in isolation from other possible origins (e.g. European, Asian).  Secondly, while the question permits respondents to state both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins, there is no scope, for example, for a person to indicate that they are of both European and Aboriginal origin.  The biggest problem of all, however, is that the question does not address the issue of identification.  How therefore can the Indigenous Census question filter out those of Indigenous descent who either don't identify as Indigenous or record those may identify both as Indigenous and European (for example)? 

I would argue that the current question facilitates a count of those who have Indigenous origins rather than (a narrower) count of those of Indigenous descent who also identify as Indigenous.  Consequently, our Indigenous count probably is considerably overstated.

Additionally, because substantial numbers of people over time have changed from not declaring Indigenous ancestry to later acknowledging their Aboriginal or Torres Strait origins, time series data for Indigenous people have been corrupted.  Apparent progress in the economic and social circumstances of Indigenous people over time will reflect both actual progress and the effects of recruitment of (generally more advantaged) persons previously counted as non-Indigenous.  Consequently, using time series data from the various Censuses to see if Australia is "closing the gap" will exaggerate the extent of progress.

Overall, it is obvious that official statistics present a far from accurate picture of our Indigenous population but nobody in authority is willing to concede this.

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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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