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Flawed official narrative on indigenous population growth

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The 2011 Census counted 548,370 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a rise of some 20 per cent since 2006. Even though such a large rise would normally be considered demographically impossible (given that immigration is negligible for this group), the reported 20 per cent increase raised hardly an eyebrow. This was because five yearly changes of over 30 per cent had been reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on three previous occasions since the 1970s, including a huge 42 per cent rise in the 1986 Census.

A rationalisation of Australia's high recorded Indigenous population growth has developed across officialdom and has received largely unquestioned acceptance.

A typical version is given by the Human Rights Commission: "The increases in the Indigenous population cannot be accounted for by the birth rate alone. The ABS attributes the increase to a growing propensity of people to identify as Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander, and the greater efforts made to record Indigenous status in the censuses".


Important matters that receive little official recognition include the effects of inter-marriage between Indigenous and other Australians, shortcomings in the Census question used to determine Indigenous status, and whether Indigenous identification rates can keep rising.

Birth rates have been a relatively minor contributor to Indigenous population growth, since the ABS has found that the total fertility rate for Indigenous women has more than halved since the 1960s. Recent ABS statistics suggest that the total fertility rate for Indigenous women bottomed at around 2.2 children in 2001 (down from about 6 in the 1960s) and has since risen to about 2.7 in 2011. The other two attributed causes (increased rates of identification and (some) improvements in Census procedures) are valid, though exaggerated in terms of their actual implications. They also disguise other important but generally unacknowledged influences.

Indigenous population growth has been characterised by peculiar trends, which only become evident when you look at growth in individual age cohorts over time.

By way of example, the 1971 Census counted 20,200 Indigenous persons aged 0 to 4 years of age. Forty years later we might expect something like 80 per cent of this cohort (aged 40 to 44 years during the 2011 Census) to still be alive. Instead the 2011 Census counted 33,605 Indigenous 40 to 44 year olds. Clearly well over 15,000 40 to 44 year olds, previously counted as non-Indigenous, had their ethnicity (as measured in the Census) changed to Indigenous over this 40 year period. Similar effects occurred across other age groups. While this is consistent with the accepted "increased rates of identification" explanation, it could also be the result of fundamental changes made to the Census question that identifies people as Indigenous.

The number of Indigenous in the 0 to 4 age group itself grew even more rapidly, from 20,200 in 1971 to 67,414 (0 to 4 year olds) in 2011. Since Indigenous fertility has more than halved since the 1960s, there must be another explanation.

Academic research as far back as the1990s recognised inter-marriage as a major contributor to Indigenous population growth. Even at that time, only 44 per cent of couple families with one or more Indigenous children aged 0 to 14 years were families where both parents were Indigenous. Census figures also showed that 83 per cent of the children of couple families with one Aboriginal and one non-Aboriginal parent were recorded as Indigenous in the 1991 Census.


Research based on the 1996 and 2006 Censuses showed that, by 2006, 52 per cent of Indigenous males were partnered with non-Indigenous females, 55 per cent of Indigenous females were partnered with non-Indigenous males, and rates of Indigenous identification among the children of such mixed unions were close to 90 per cent.

The obvious conclusion is that high rates of marriage by Indigenous Australians to non-Indigenous partners, along with the vast majority of the resultant children being classified as Indigenous, has contributed in a major way to rapid growth in the Indigenous population. Put another way, the fertility of non-Indigenous women partnered to Indigenous males is an often unrecognised contributor to Indigenous classified births, and is a more important contributor to increases in the Indigenous population than high fertility amongst Indigenous women.

Acknowledgement of such influences is largely absent from key government publications. An ABS Occasional Paper does grudgingly state that: "The largest increase in Indigenous census counts was for child age cohorts. A possible reason for these that they are children of couples where one partner is Indigenous and one is non-Indigenous."

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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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