Parentage and Indigenous population change

Author/editor: Gray, A
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 166


Non-Indigenous women contribute to Indigenous population growth when they form relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and bear children. The aim of this discussion paper is to assess this contribution more precisely.

The dynamic patterns of Aboriginal family formation and reformation might not have been considered adequately in recent interpretations of census data, which pointed out that there were rapidly increasing proportions of Indigenous children in families consisting of Indigenous fathers and non-Indigenous mothers. This could occur for reasons other than rapidly increasing intermarriage. There are also pitfalls in interpreting increasing intermarriage as indicative of change in the nature of Aboriginal society. Nevertheless, convergence is the inevitable future for both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous components of Australian society.

Parentage according to census results

Because of change in the census question about Indigenous origin, the 1996 Census may have caused more confusion than had ever existed before about how the question should be answered on behalf of children, especially in families of mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous parentage. It is not clear whether choice of identity either for themselves or their children is perceived to exist by people filling out census forms, although such choice is a possible consequence of an official definition involving self-identification.

In the 1996 Census, 92 per cent of children aged 0 to 14 with an Indigenous mother or an Indigenous father were themselves identified as Indigenous, while 6 per cent were identified as non-Indigenous, and 2 per cent had 'not stated' Indigenous origin.

Among children identified as Indigenous, the proportion in families with Indigenous fathers and non-Indigenous mothers was highest for the youngest children, and progressively decreased at higher ages of the children. Information of this nature has been used to infer that, over time, increasing proportions of Indigenous children are born to mothers who are neither Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Islanders. This conclusion is disputed in this paper, first on the grounds that there should also have been consequent reductions in other specific types of families, and second on the grounds that the same pattern is found in both the 1991 and 1996 Censuses without the displacement that might have logically been expected. It is argued that dynamic processes of family formation are more likely to be the main explanation for the observed patterns.

Similar conclusions, namely that there are confounding effects from the family formation processes, are reached in assessing the patterns of identification of children as non-Indigenous. Much more straightforward assessment is available in the case of children classified as Indigenous origin 'not stated' but having at least one Indigenous parent. The highest proportions of these cases are found among the very youngest children, and there can be little doubt that this pattern represents confusion about how to answer the Indigenous origin question on behalf of babies.

In this way, a more realistic assessment of the processes of Aboriginal family formation has also produced useful information about the extent of uncertain identification of Indigenous children in census returns, particularly the very youngest children, and classification of children of Indigenous parents as non-Indigenous.

Is there other evidence for increasing Indigenous births to non-Indigenous mothers?

The second part of the paper examines other evidence for increasing numbers of Indigenous births to non-Indigenous women, using information supplied during birth registration. Only during the past few years has this information become available from all parts of Australia. The birth registration data suggest strongly that there are indeed rapidly increasing numbers of Indigenous births to non-Indigenous women, and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander men. These extra births boost Aboriginal population growth to a continuing high level, even though the fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has been falling towards replacement level.


There is no need to modify significantly the conclusions reached in recent analysis about the implications for population growth of increasing numbers of Indigenous births to non-Indigenous mothers. The analysis in the paper does, however, show that great caution should be exercised in acceptance of the superficial implications of census data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Census classifications, and the assumptions which were made in constructing them, might not give adequate recognition to the processes of Indigenous family formation.

ISBN: 0 7315 2601 5

ISSN:1036 1774

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