The explosion of aboriginality: components of Indigenous population growth 1991-96

Author/editor: Gray, A
Year published: 1997
Issue no.: 142


The aim of this paper is to set out what can be determined about the three essential components of Aboriginal population growth in the 1991-96 period, and then examine, if any, the characteristics of the residual 'identification change'.


The 1996 Census indicates that age-specific fertility rates have continued to follow a gently downward path over the 15 years since 1981. This is in line with expectations expressed at the end of the 1980s. It suggests that results from the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey that fertility may have risen in recent years were misleading.

  • While the majority of births to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander fathers are also to Indigenous mothers, the size of the proportion contributed by non-Indigenous mothers is high enough to contribute a significant extra proportion to Aboriginal population growth. The proportion of births to non-Indigenous mothers with Indigenous fathers is much higher in some parts of Australia than in other parts of the country.
  • The highest proportion of non-Indigenous mothers was recorded in Tasmania, where it was slightly more than half of births where either partner was Indigenous, and the lowest proportion was in the Northern Territory, where the odds of the father as well as the mother being Aboriginal were nine to one.
  • A priority for further analysis of 1996 Census data is to assess more precisely the speed at which the proportion of children born to non-Indigenous mothers is changing and the implications for Aboriginal population growth. A preliminary model of this process is presented. This involves an adjustment factor to the births component of population growth. The largest adjustments are in the south-eastern States.


Death rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians show no signs of abating to the levels experienced by other Australians, or even of declining at all:

  • Not only has there been no improvement in the overall level of Aboriginal survival, but there is some indication that it is actually deteriorating, especially for Indigenous women.
  • Life expectancy for Indigenous males was static between 1991 and 1996 at 57 years.
  • Life expectancy for Indigenous females fell between 1991 and 1996 from 64.4 to 63.8 years.
  • There is enough information available to undertake a thorough investigation of the reasons for lack of improvement in Indigenous survival, and it is essential that this investigation should be undertaken as soon as possible.

Unexplained population growth

After allowance for population increase due to births to Indigenous women, births to Indigenous fathers and non-Indigenous women, and deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there remains a sizeable residual component of population growth between 1991 and 1996.

  • Unexplained growth accounted for just on 50 per cent of net intercensal growth between 1991 and 1996.
  • The proportionate age distribution of the Indigenous population in 1996 is more or less exactly what it would be expected to be, only the number of people is higher. Thus, the 'new' Aborigines have approximately the same age distribution as the 'old' Aborigines in having a far higher proportion of young people and a far lower proportion of old people than the non-Indigenous population.
  • It is preferable to avoid leaping to any unwarranted assumption that this unexplained growth is due to 'identification change'. The most logical place to look for explanation is in the way in which the census is carried out and processed, and the possibilities it presents for missing parts of the population.

Policy implications

It remains very important for policy purposes to gain more certainty about the size and geographic distribution of the Indigenous population. This affects the allocation of grants to the States by the Commonwealth, and assessment of the appropriate scale for programs for Indigenous Australians and where these are needed. In pursuit of greater certainty the following should be noted:

  • Counting better requires a complete review of census approaches to enumerating Indigenous people and adopting cost-effective methods which will work.
  • A first step should be research into the way Indigenous people identify themselves, how they reveal their identity on forms of various types, and why they might avoid being included on some types of forms.
  • Studies on inter-marriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are now needed to assess more precisely the rate of growth of the proportion of Indigenous children born to non-Indigenous mothers, and also to understand the nature of the phenomenon of increasing intermarriage in order to predict its future contribution to Indigenous population growth.
  • Indigenous births to non-Indigenous parents will increasingly boost natural growth of the Indigenous population way beyond the growth trend of the rest of the Australian population, for as long as Indigenous identity remains separable.
  • The estimates in this paper show only slight decline in fertility and no decreases in disturbingly high levels of mortality. There is as much need as ever for action on Aboriginal death rates, especially in early to middle adulthood.

ISBN: 0 7315 2577 9

ISSN:1036 1774

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