The relative social and economic status of Indigenous people in Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett

Author/editor: Ross, K, Taylor, J
Year published: 2000
Issue no.: 8


This profile of the relative social and economic status of Indigenous people in Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett was prepared at the request of the New South Wales State Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) to inform discussions to be held between ATSIC Commissioner Steve Gordon, Indigenous representatives from Far West New South Wales and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. The focus of these discussions is to explore solutions to pressing social and economic problems facing Indigenous communities in these three towns. The report provides a range of social indicators constructed from a variety of published and unpublished sources including the Census of Population and Housing as well as administrative data sets held by ATSIC, Commonwealth and New South Wales government departments, and other locally-based Aboriginal organisations. This process was assisted by consultations with key informants in each of the three towns and with relevant agencies in Sydney and Canberra.

In a fundamental sense, planning for social and economic change is determined by the size, growth and socioeconomic composition of populations. Accordingly, the scope of this profile is limited to those aspects of social and economic life in the region that form the basis of policy interest and intervention. These include the demographic structure and residence patterns of the regional population, labour force status, education, income, welfare, housing, and health status. For each of these categories, the aim was to identify and describe the main characteristics of the population and highlight outstanding features in the data. A further aim was to compare the socioeconomic status of Indigenous residents of the region with that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. Key findings are summarised below.


  • Census counts for the three towns show a consistent pattern of a growing Indigenous population in conjunction with a fall in the count of non-Indigenous people. As a result, the proportion of the population in these towns which is Indigenous has been steadily increasing. In 1991, 35 per cent of the population of these towns was Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, by 1996 this had risen to 41 per cent.
  • Nationally, growth rates for the Indigenous population are higher than for the non-Indigenous population. When considered over even a relatively short time frame, these higher growth rates translate into quite large increases in numbers. Two series of projections show that by 2011, the Indigenous population in the Bourke ATSIC region is likely to be between 11,200 and 13,100 people. Taking the lower series as more reliable, this is an increase of 40 per cent in 15 years.
  • Despite some probable underenumeration of children and youth, the median age of Indigenous people in the three towns ranged between 19 and 23 years. In contrast, the median age for non-Indigenous people was 33 or 34 years.
  • This age profile produces a high dependency ratio with a much higher burden of dependence placed on Indigenous people of working age in these three towns than on non-Indigenous people. In 1996, there were between 66 and 80 Indigenous dependants per 100 Indigenous working-age persons in these towns, compared to between 39 and 52 non-Indigenous dependants per 100 non-Indigenous working-age persons.
  • If the ratio is limited to the burden placed on employed persons the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in these towns was even greater. There were between three and five non-employed persons for every employed Indigenous person in these towns. The situation for non-Indigenous people enumerated in these towns was the reverse with more employed persons than non-employed persons.
  • Many of the social and economic issues facing the region focus on the problems of youth. Examples include the need for extra job opportunities to absorb the growing number of new entrants to the labour force as well as for additional housing and community services to accommodate and support the formation of new households. Of particular concern, then, is an apparent underenumeration of youth and young adults. In overcoming this, one option might be to explore the possibility of studying the problem by applying additional resources to the forthcoming 2001 Census. Also, a special survey might be considered to establish the scale and nature of particular difficulties facing youth in each of the three towns.


  • At most ages through the compulsory years of schooling non-Indigenous attendance is either at or close to 100 per cent. In Brewarrina, it appears that non-Indigenous children of secondary age attend school elsewhere.
  • Among Indigenous children attendance is generally lower than for non-Indigenous children, although through the primary school years it is generally above 80 per cent and often 90 per cent.
  • However, the overwhelming feature that distinguishes Indigenous school attendance from that of the rest of the school-age population is a steady fall-off in participation from as early as age 14 culminating in very low levels of attendance among 16, 17 and 18 year olds. According to these census data, only 30 per cent of Indigenous youth aged 16 and 17 years attend an educational institution compared to 65 per cent of their non-Indigenous counterparts.
  • Indigenous people in the three towns were nearly 5 times less likely to have a post-school qualification than non-Indigenous people. The largest disparity was for the youngest age group, aged 15–24 years, with only 4 per cent of Indigenous people holding a post-school qualification compared to 32 per cent of their non-Indigenous counterparts. In the prime working ages, years when formal education could be expected to have been completed, only 10 per cent of Indigenous adults had a qualification compared to 42 per cent of non-Indigenous adults.

Labour force

  • According to 1996 Census data 45 per cent of all Indigenous persons aged 15 years or more in Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett were in the labour market. That is, they were either working or looking for work. In contrast, around 70 per cent of non-Indigenous people were in the same situation.
  • The ratio of the employed to the population aged 15 years or more for Indigenous people was 33 per cent, half the equivalent ratio for the non-Indigenous population of the towns. Put another way, about three-quarters of the Indigenous people in the labour force were employed, compared to 95 per cent of non-Indigenous people in the labour force. For both Indigenous males and females, employment/population ratios were lowest in Walgett.
  • Amongst the unemployed, however, quite different patterns emerged for the three towns. Unemployment was highest in Walgett at 32 per cent and lowest in Bourke at 22 per cent with rates among males higher than for females.
  • By contrast, unemployment for non-Indigenous people was very low in all three towns, possibly reflecting employment-based motives for non-Indigenous people to settle in the region.
  • The economic structure of the region overall is a simple one with most employment generated either by agriculture or by a range of supporting service activities, such as retail trade, government administration, education and health and community services. These five industries together account for 62 per cent of employed Indigenous people in the three towns, and 56 per cent of employed non-Indigenous people. However, while non-Indigenous workers are fairly evenly spread over the five main industries, (though with some concentration in retailing), Indigenous people are concentrated in just two industries — health and community services and government administration.
  • Options for private sector expansion in the region are primarily through the development of irrigated agriculture and tourism with their multiplier effects on employment in retailing, wholesaling, rural services, transport services and accommodation — all industries where Indigenous people are currently under-represented. In both of these areas, options may exist to construct future expansion of activity around increased Indigenous employment as well as joint venturing and co-management with regional Indigenous interests.
  • In 1996, the CDEP scheme was by far the major employer in all three towns. This is most striking in Walgett, where nearly all (92%) employment was estimated to be through the CDEP scheme. In Brewarrina, the CDEP scheme accounted for half of all Indigenous people in employment and in Bourke, nearly one in three (31%).
  • Data for the participation in these CDEP schemes in 2000 shows that they favour participation by males. In Bourke and Brewarrina, over 60 per cent of participants were male. Data by sex for Barriekneal CDEP were not available for Walgett separately from Lightning Ridge. However, the combined figure still shows over 50 per cent of participants were male.
  • CDEP scheme employment in these towns does not appear to favour school leavers, with only 9 per cent of participants overall aged 15–17 years. Most participants are aged 18–50 years and are fairly evenly distributed among the age categories in that range.


  • Overall, personal income for Indigenous people was much lower than for non-Indigenous people in these towns, ranging between 40 per cent and 78 per cent of the equivalent non-Indigenous income.
  • In 1996, the estimated total annual income received by Indigenous people in the three communities amounted to $16.9 million. Almost half of this ($8 million or 48%) was derived from non-employment sources. What is not known in this calculation is the extent to which wages from CDEP are included as employment income. Suffice to say, that if this were known then the estimate of dependency on non-employment/welfare income would rise on account of the notional link between CDEP wages and Newstart Allowance.
  • For non-Indigenous residents, employment contributes the bulk of income with that derived from other sources accounting for only 12 per cent to 17 per cent of gross receipts in the three towns. Among the Indigenous population, however, around half of all income in each town is from non-employment sources.
  • To the extent that receipt of income from non-employment sources can be said to represent welfare dependence, then the greatest level of dependence is evident in Walgett.
  • One factor contributing to the greater contribution of non-employment income to total Indigenous income is the fact that Indigenous people in employment are in lower paid jobs. On average, Indigenous workers in the region receive between half and three-quarters of what non-Indigenous workers earn and these figures are more or less consistent in each of the three towns.
  • Over the 12 month period to the end of March 2000 a total of $3.2 million was paid to Indigenous clients of Centrelink at Bourke, $2.3 million to clients at Brewarrina and $4.1 to clients at Walgett. Allowing for the three-year time gap, the combined amount of $9.6 million per annum is reasonably close to the census-based estimate of non-employment income of $8 million for the population in the three townships. Apart from giving some validation to census income data, this also suggests that little has altered in terms of the level of welfare dependence since 1996.


  • In 1996, just over 30 per cent of the housing stock in the three towns combined was occupied by Indigenous households with the lowest proportion in Bourke (26%) and the highest in Brewarrina (43%).
  • Overall, the average number of persons per Indigenous dwelling was 60 per cent higher than for other dwellings with the highest differential in occupancy rates found in Brewarrina.
  • Census data indicate an average of 1.37 persons per bedroom in Indigenous dwellings compared to 0.90 persons in non-Indigenous dwellings. This represents a level of crowding which is over 50 per cent higher for Indigenous dwellings. The situation is similar across all three towns.
  • Compared to other households, Indigenous households in the three towns remain overwhelmingly dependant on rented accommodation. The consequence is a severely restricted range of housing options for Indigenous families with the onus placed firmly on public housing resources for access to accommodation. In each of the three towns these public resources are increasingly managed by Indigenous housing organisations.
  • In order to overcome current levels of housing stress it is estimated that 34 new houses are required in Bourke together with extensions to existing dwellings to provide 28 additional bedrooms. This is in addition to a major program of housing repair and maintenance earmarked under Health Infrastructure Priority Projects (HIPP) program funding. In Brewarrina, there is a shortage of 107 bedrooms which translates into a need for 25 additional dwellings and five extensions to existing stock. In addition, 51 dwellings require major repairs and maintenance. In Walgett, an estimated 15 new dwellings are required while all current housing managed by Indigenous organisations is considered in need of repair and maintenance works.


  • A decade ago, the estimated life expectancy at birth for Indigenous people in Western New South Wales was 53 years for males and 64 years for females. Recent analysis of 1996 Census data for New South Wales as a whole suggests that while life expectancy for Aboriginal males may have increased slightly (to 58 years), the figure of 65 years for females remains comparable. Compared to the equivalent figures for all males in New South Wales in 1996 (75 years) and all females (81 years), these estimates starkly outline the continuing outcome of poor health status among Indigenous residents of New South Wales and probably also the region.
  • Indigenous mortality rates have been found to vary considerably between communities in Far West New South Wales. In particular, it was found that the number of deaths of Indigenous people observed in Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett was significantly greater than expected given the prevailing rate of Indigenous mortality across the region. Smaller household size and more employment were associated with lower mortality rates.
  • Diseases of the circulatory system account for 58 per cent of the excess risk of mortality experienced by Indigenous males in Western New South Wales. This is also the main source of excess mortality among females. For Indigenous males, diseases of the digestive system, injury and poisoning, neoplasms and respiratory diseases are the other major sources of excess mortality. For females, endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases stand out as do diseases of the respiratory system, diseases of the genitourinary system and injury and poisoning.
  • Indigenous people in the region are admitted to hospital at somewhere between three and five times the rate of all other residents of New South Wales.
  • From hospitalisation data it is clear that respiratory diseases, diseases of the digestive system including renal disease, injury and poisoning, and gastroenteritic diseases are primary causes of high morbidity.

ISBN: 0 7315 4907 4

ISSN: 1442 3871

Updated:  9 June 2009/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications