Continuing challenges in attempting to measure the size, and changing size, of Australia's Indigenous population.

Author:Wilson, Tom

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently released the publication 2006 Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians which contains 2006 Census usual residence counts and Estimated Resident Populations (ERPs). This paper comments on selected data from the ABS report and reviews some of the challenges faced in attempting to measure the size, and changing size, of the nation's Indigenous population.


The recent publication of the ABS report 2006 Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has no doubt generated much interest amongst researchers, planners and policy-makers concerned with Indigenous issues. (1) Contained in this report are the 30 June 2006 preliminary experimental Indigenous Estimated Resident Populations (ERPs) for Australia and the states and territories, census counts for various Indigenous geographic areas, estimates of the net census undercount as well as commentary on census procedures, processes and data quality. Of particular interest is the revised and improved Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) for the 2006 census and the major impact this has on the Indigenous ERP.

This paper reviews some of the challenges involved in estimating Indigenous population size and change and offers some comments on the recently released Indigenous population figures. It begins by presenting the latest Indigenous ERPs, those for 30 June 2006.


National as well as state and territory ERPs by Indigenous status at 30 June 2006 are shown in Table 1. It can be seen that the nation's Indigenous population is estimated to have passed the half million mark, and is in fact just over twice the first experimental Indigenous ERP calculated for 1986 (Table 2). At the state and territory scale the overall picture is similar to 2001: New South Wales and Queensland are reported as home to the largest number of Indigenous people, and the Northern Territory stands out as having by far the greatest percentage of its population identifying as Indigenous--31.6 per cent compared to no more than four per cent in any other jurisdiction.

The ABS cautions that these Indigenous ERPs are experimental and preliminary, experimental because the practical and conceptual difficulties in measuring the Indigenous population render it more uncertain than the total ERP, and preliminary because it may be subject to revision following analysis of the demographic components of change between 2001 and 2006 and Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) results. Final 30 June 2006 Indigenous ERPs are due to be published in mid-2008, and estimates and projections from 1996 to 2016 are scheduled to be released in August 2009 in the Experimental Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians series. (2)

Although ERPs for the Indigenous population are published to the nearest single person, it is important to stress that they cannot be assumed to possess anything like this degree of accuracy. As the following section makes clear, estimating the size of the nation's Indigenous population is no simple task and the resulting ERPs possess quite a degree of uncertainty.


In attempting to produce Indigenous population estimates from the census a range of conceptual, procedural and complex statistical estimation influences come into play. Figure 1 summarises the principal influences that shape the picture the census provides of the Indigenous population and the subsequent adjustments made to census counts to derive the ERP. These are discussed briefly in turn.

Census concepts and questions

An initial consideration is the socially constructed nature of the Indigenous population. It does not have precise and uncontested boundaries. Individuals and groups from different perspectives may subscribe to different definitions of who is Indigenous. The Commonwealth Government uses a three-fold definition. According to this 'Commonwealth working definition' an Indigenous person is someone who (i) is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, (ii) identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and (iii) is accepted as such by the community in which they live. (3) For population data, the relevant definition is that embedded in the census question. Figure 2 shows the precise form of the question in the mainstream 2006 Census household form.

In addition, the picture of the Indigenous population obtained by the census is one which is seen through a lens of western demographic concepts and categories. Some of these concepts and categories, such as household, family and usual address, may have limited relevance or different interpretations in traditionally-oriented Indigenous communities. (4)


Enumeration strategy and procedures

As in previous censuses, the ABS pursued an Indigenous Enumeration Strategy (IES), a series of efforts aimed at maximising coverage of Indigenous people. In selected remote communities and urban town camps where the vast majority of the population is Indigenous this strategy included enumeration by interview rather than self-completion. Census responses collected in this way, mostly in northern Australia, were recorded on modified census forms designed to better suit data collection under these circumstances. These forms contain some differences to the mainstream forms in census questions and wording. To facilitate interview-based data capture enumeration in these areas was spread out over a number of weeks around census night rather than being done on the actual census night (8 August in 2006). The benefits of the interview-based approach in remote areas...

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