Transformations of the Indigenous population: Recent and future trends

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 2000
Issue no.: 194


By the 1970s, the Indigenous population had undergone a series of systematic fluctuations in fertility and mortality levels, uneven over space and time, but ultimately comprehensive and uniform in effect. Current interest is on progress in the prevailing demographic regime of declining natural growth rates based on reductions in both fertility and mortality, with recent trends suggesting that this process may be stalled. Also of interest is the emergence of additional contributors to Indigenous population growth. These include Indigenous births to non-Indigenous women as well as an increased propensity for individuals to declare Indigenous status on census forms. In the more distant past, sociological and political processes have effectively excluded or devalued Indigenous representation in official statistics. In the more recent politics of data collection, efforts are made to encourage identification.

Trends in mortality

A steady and precipitous decline was recorded in the Indigenous infant mortality rate from around the 100 per thousand level in the mid-1960s to 26 per thousand by 1981 with much of this due to improvements in postneonatal mortality. Subsequently, however, the decline in rates has been much less impressive with the level of Indigenous infant mortality remaining consistently around three times the Australian average. Consequently, · The 1980 the level of Indigenous infant mortality has been stuck at around the level last recorded for all Australians in the 1940s. As the earlier drop in infant deaths coincided with improvements in community infrastructure and the development of Indigenous health programs and services, the subsequent the persistence of relatively high infant mortality suggests that there are limitations to the further impact of medical intervention. To sustain a decline in infant mortality what is now required are public health interventions aimed at such issues as nutrition as well as a general raising of economic status. Overall progress in raising life expectancies have also stalled. This is all the more striking given that over the period for which reliable Indigenous estimates have been available (since 1981), life expectancies for the total Australian popultion have displayed a marked improvement. Consequently, · the level of mortality observed for Indigenous males at the end of the 20th Century was equivalent to that recorded for all Australian males at the beginning of the Century. Among females, the comparison is no more encouraging with life expectancy for Indigenous females in the late 1990s hovering around a level last recorded for all females in Australia in 1920.

Trends in fertility

Total Fertility Rates for the Indigenous population reached their highest levels in the decade from 1956-66, remained relatively high until 1971 and then tumbled throughout the 1970s. This effectively halved the TFR from around 5.9 in 1966-71 to around 3.3 in 1976-81 and lower again to around 3.1 or 3.0 in 1981-86. The 1996 Census points to a further lowering of the TFR to 2.7 representing a substantial drop of around 50 per cent since 1970. In explaining this decline, the focus has been on the effects of increased participation by Indigenous people, particularly women, in employment and education thus altering the costs and benefits of children. One issue that has emerged parallel with the timing of fertility decline among Indigenous women is the growing importance of Indigenous births to non-Indigenous women as a factor in overall natural increase of the Indigenous population. Population growth Apart from natural increase, growth in the Indigenous population may also derive from an increased propensity over time for individuals to declare Indigenous status on census forms. Collectively, these components of growth have resulted in a 200 per cent increase in the census count of Indigenous Australians since 1971. This averages out at an annual increase of around 8 per cent. Attempts to project this growth into the current decade are undermined by the difficulty of modelling changes in census identification as Indigenous. Consequently, ABS experimental estimates for the Indigenous population in 2006 range from 469,000 to 650,000.

Population distribution

One of the more obvious transformations of the Indigenous population in the second half of the twentieth century was a shift in overall geographic distribution away from remote and rural areas in favour of urban and metropolitan centres and consequently towards the south and east of the country. Current analysis of this phenomenon points to the likelihood that much of the apparent shift in population distribution from the 1960s onwards could have been due simply to increased enumeration of city-based residents. Two observations support this:

  • Since 1976, the overall effectiveness of migration flows in redistributing the Indigenous population between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas has been very low with net migration gains mostly to Brisbane and Perth offset by persistent net losses mostly to Sydney and Melbourne.
  • There is a lack of association observed between Indigenous net migration and regional population growth, especially in regions dominated by urban-based populations. While there the enumerated Indigenous population is increasingly and overwhelmingly urban, numbers in rural and smaller non-metropolitan centres have also continued to grow. Indeed, with downturn in the rural sector and associated net out-migration of non-Indigenous people, the only growth in much of outback Australia has been among the Indigenous population. As a consequence, Indigenous people represent a steadily growing share (almost one-fifth) of the outback population.

Economic status

Despite increased urbanisation, overall economic status has remained low. Common threads in terms of determinants remain focused around the themes of low human capital endowments and the historic legacy of exclusion from the mainstream provisions of the Australian state. Locational disadvantage is also a factor, not least in the cities where Indigenous people remain over-represented in the poorest city neighbourhoods. Moreover, within these neighbourhoods they display the worst economic outcomes. Against the background of high population growth, the vital issue for Indigenous policy into the new century is the distinct prospect that the overall economic situation for Indigenous Australians will deteriorate.

ISBN: 07315 2629 5

ISSN:1036 1774

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