Changing places: Indigenous population movement in the 1990s

Author/editor: Taylor, J, Bell, M
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 189


This paper presents selected measures of Indigenous population mobility using 1996 Census data and compares these with equivalent measures for the non-Indigenous population. There are two parts to the exercise. The first comprises an examination of relative propensities to move according to the age and sex distribution of movers, their labour force status and income distribution. The second is an analysis of the contribution of mobility to spatial redistribution of the Indigenous population.

Propensity to move

The mobility rate among those who identified as Indigenous in 1996 was substantially higher than the rate observed for those who identified as Indigenous in 1991. Between 1986 and 1991, a total of 94,167 Indigenous people (45 per cent) changed residence, whereas between 1991 and 1996, 147,955 individuals (52 per cent) moved. The latter was much higher than the 43 per cent figure recorded for the rest of the Australian population. Over the one-year period between 1995 and 1996, a total of 97,010 Indigenous people changed their usual place of residence. This comprised 29 per cent of all those who could have moved-a proportion much higher than the 18 per cent recorded for the rest of the population.

For the Indigenous population, very high movement propensities are recorded in the south-east Queensland regions of Wide Bay-Burnett, Fitzroy, Brisbane, Darling Downs and Moreton, as well as in other major migrant destinations such as Canberra and Perth. The Mallee region of western Victoria also stands out. This contrasts sharply with the situation across the whole of Northern Australia where census-recorded mobility rates are well below average. Elsewhere, pockets of relative immobility emerge such as in southern Tasmania and generally through the south-east of Western Australia.

Apart from in south-east Queensland and the south-west of Western Australia, the spatial pattern of non-Indigenous relative movement propensities could not be more different from the Indigenous pattern with the highest movement rates located across Northern Australia and much of Western Australia.

Low Indigenous movement propensities in remote northern regions should not be taken as an indication of immobility, but rather of a lack of migration. The importance in these regions of frequent mobility in Indigenous social and economic life has been extensively recorded and the basic statistical problem here derives from the inability of fixed-period migration questions to capture short-term and circular population movements.

Despite similarities in the age distribution of mobility, Indigenous rates are substantially higher than non-Indigenous rates:

  • 34 per cent of Indigenous infants change their usual place of residence each year compared to only 23 per cent of non-Indigenous infants;
  • 25 per cent of Indigenous children of compulsory school age change their usual place of residence each year compared to only 15 per cent of non-Indigenous school-age children;
  • in the years of peak movement, between 20 and 24 years, as much as 43 per cent of Indigenous people shift location annually compared to 39 per cent of other young adults; and
  • at older ages mobility rates fall away for both populations, but the differential between them increases such that Indigenous rates are around 10 to 20 percentage points above those for non-Indigenous people.

Spatial redistribution

As with previous censuses, the 1996 Census again reveals that the overall flows between capital cities and non-metropolitan areas tend to cancel each other out. However, the non-Indigenous capital city population revealed an aggregate net loss while the overall Indigenous population of capital cities revealed a net gain. This gain was confined to Brisbane, Perth, Darwin and Adelaide, with Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart recording net migration losses.

At the regional level, it is clear that certain country regions (South West and North West Queensland, Far West New South Wales) are generally unattractive (with high out-rates relative to in-rates), while others, usually in proximity to metropolitan centres (Moreton, Outer Adelaide, Richmond-Tweed, Canberra and East Gippsland), are generally attractive to migrants (high in-rates relative to out-rates). These latter-type regions also have very high rates of population turnover.

As for the contribution of mobility to regional population change, for the Indigenous population it has long been observed that a process of gradual urbanisation is under way, manifest in a shift in population distribution to the south and east of the continent. While this redistribution is undeniable, much of it reflects change in the propensity of individuals to identify in statistical collections as Indigenous. Regions where this effect is most prominent include Sydney, Hunter, Illawara, Central and Mid-North Coast New South Wales, Canberra, Melbourne, all of Tasmania, Moreton, Brisbane and Darling Downs.

Policy implications

The results of this analysis confirm evidence increasingly available from other sources that the regular mobility of many Indigenous people has a significant impact on the level and nature of their interaction with mainstream institutions; for example, by contributing to greater breaching of social security provisions, by reducing rates of school attendance and by constraining opportunity for favourable employment outcomes. At the same time, it is unclear whether mobility is more a cause or a symptom of this situation.

In those regions identified as having high population turnover there is an urgent need to examine which groups in the population are most involved and if any association exists with other social indicators. In south-east Queensland, for example:

  • around 40 per cent of recent population growth was due to change in the propensity to identify;
  • of those who declared Indigenous status in 1996, 75 per cent had changed residence since 1991;
  • 33 per cent change residence each year;
  • there was an almost 60 per cent turnover of the of the population in the five-year period since 1991; and
  • in all probability, in an area such as this, by the time planning processes emerge out of data analysis, the intended targets of policy would have changed.

A major concern arising from the analysis relates to the implications of high mobility for the measurement of outcomes, particularly in the context of the Commonwealth Grants Commission's new charter to develop indices of relative disadvantage for the purposes of revenue allocation in Indigenous affairs.

ISBN: 0 7315 2624 4

ISSN:1036 1774

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