Indigenous Population change in the 2016 Census

Terry Ngamandarra Wilson, Gulach (detail), painting on bark, private collection © Terry Ngamandarra, licensed by Viscopy, 2016
Author/editor: Markham F, Biddle N
Year published: 2017
Issue no.: 1


The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of the changing size and spatial distribution of the Indigenous population of Australia, comparing the results of the 2011 and 2016 censuses. The paper summarises five key aspects of the intercensal change:
• the growth in the estimated population of Indigenous Australians
• the changing geographic distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
• the growth in the number of census records with indeterminate Indigenous status
• the spatial mismatch between demographic projections from the 2011 Census and 2016 Census counts
• the potential for identification change to confound changes in socioeconomic outcomes.
We show that the Indigenous population grew rapidly between 2011 and 2016, reaching around 3.3% of the total population estimate, or 798 381 people. This was most likely due to a combination of natural increase and changing patterns of identification. Both aspects of growth were concentrated in more urban parts of the country, especially coastal New South Wales and southeast Queensland. We suggest that care needs to be taken when interpreting Indigenous population change between 2011 and 2016, because of both unexplained population growth and a substantial increase in the number of census records with no answer to the Indigenous status question. In particular, we suggest that identification change may lead to an apparent convergence in the outcomes between the observed Indigenous and observed non-Indigenous populations through time, without there necessarily being any improvement in the life circumstances of individual Indigenous Australians.

Updated:  10 April 2018/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications