Changing numbers, changing needs? A preliminary assessment of Indigenous population growth, 1991-96

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 1997
Issue no.: 143


At the 1996 Census, a total of 352,970 individuals self-identified as Indigenous Australian. This represented an increase of 87,599 or 33 per cent since 1991, an increase which was way above expectation. As a consequence, demographic analysis has returned to the familiar condition of uncertainty about intercensal projections. This raises two questions of fundamental policy interest:

  • does the considerable increase in numbers witnessed between 1991 and 1996 imply a concomitant increase in need?
  • what are the implications of unpredictability for assessing change, and by implication policy and program performance, using social indicators?

Change in population distribution

The 1996 Census count underlines a long-standing shift in Indigenous population distribution away from the north and west of the continent in favour of the east and south, and away from a predominantly rural residence to an urban existence.

  • New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory all experienced population growth well above average;
  • as much as 87 per cent of intercensal population growth occurred in major urban Statistical Divisions.
  • many remote regions such as the Kimberley, the Jabiru region of the Northern Territory and Cape York experienced much lower growth than expected.

Social construction of Indigenous identity

In canvassing reasons for the large rise in population and the geographic variation in growth rates, attention is focused on the manner in which the Indigenous population is socially constructed.

Indigenous population change is complicated by the dynamic of net change in ethnic identification. Among the factors considered as contributing to this are:

  • increased awareness and acknowledgment of Indigenous origins;
  • inter-marriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons which can add to the population of Indigenous origin by ?increasing the number of Indigenous births;
  • changes in enumeration procedures.

Change in economic status

Among the key issues for policy arising from increased identification and the concentration of growth in urban areas, are whether the characteristics of the new (1996) population differ from those of the original (1991) population and what the net impact has been in terms of socioeconomic status.

Analysis of aggregate change in income and labour force status as well as residential location in major cities, suggests that existing estimates of social policy deficits such as housing need and job requirements are likely to vary only in quantity but not in kind, except for a possible increased focus on need in urban areas. This finding is only preliminary and more detailed analysis of the full census data will be required before firm conclusions are drawn.

Policy implications

  • As long as the census question on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins remains the sole means of comprehensively defining the Indigenous population, then it is likely that the numbers identified in this way will continue to rise steadily;
  • despite a substantial number of new entrants to the census-identified Indigenous population, the overall demographic profile of the group appears unchanged and as a group Indigenous Australians remain substantially disadvantaged in terms of socioeconomic status compared to all Australians;
  • there is a pressing requirement for revised estimates and projections of the population;
  • in the context of benchmarking outcomes in social and economic policy, consideration should be given to the appropriate denominator for use in measuring change in social indicators.

ISBN: 0 7315 2578 7

ISSN:1036 1774

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