Some years ago, I wrote a piece asking, ‘How many Aboriginal Australians are there? My beef at that time was that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wasn’t collecting census data about ‘Indigenous’ people in ways that met the High Court’s criteria to be regarded as an Aboriginal (and presumably Torres Strait Islander) person. This continued to be the case in the 2021 census.
Without satisfactory data on who might be ‘Indigenous’, we cannot know how many people might be represented by any Indigenous Voice which is now under active discussion, or how that representation might be achieved. We also cannot calculate rates of Indigenous incarceration and socio-economic disadvantage which may be worse than commonly believed.
The High Court [Love and Thoms v Commonwealth of Australia] determined in 2020 that to be regarded as an Aboriginal person, a person must: (1) be biologically descended from Aboriginal people; (2) self-identify as an Aboriginal person; and (3) be recognised as a member of an Aboriginal group by its elders or those with traditional authority to determine its membership.
Censuses do not canvass the extent to which people are ‘recognised’, or by whom, but the small numbers reported from the 2021 census as speaking any Indigenous language at home (76,978, or fewer than 10% of respondents who reported an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ‘origin’) suggest that few people of Indigenous ‘origin’ identify closely with an Indigenous ’heritage’. Data for Aboriginal Land Councils from State Electoral Commissions suggest the same.
So, what does the 2021 census tell us about Australia’s Indigenous population?
Currently, ABS censuses do not ask questions directly about ethnic identity. They do ask whether respondents have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ‘origin’. Whatever that word might be intended to mean, the responses are more likely to be expressions of descent than of self-identity. In 2021, 812,718 people reported ‘Aboriginal ‘and/or ‘Torres Strait Islander’ origin, a number that the ABS raised to 983,257 after adjusting for an estimated undercount of 17.6%.
Censuses do ask about ‘ancestry’. With only two responses allowed most of about 725,000 people who reported an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ‘ancestry’ in 2021 (695,359 ‘Aboriginal’ and 57,353 ‘Torres Strait Islander’) reported a non-Indigenous ancestry also, including ‘Australian’ ancestry (277,469 – who might be ‘Indigenous’, ‘non-Indigenous’ or both!), ‘English’ (131,618) and ‘Irish’ (31,853. Both the latter could subsume various ‘British’ ancestries.
Neither descent nor ancestry are synonymous with ethnic identity, which is an expression of how a people live, but from censuses it seems certain that the number of people who actively identify (exclusively or otherwise) as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is much fewer than the numbers of people who report an Indigenous origin or descent. This is hardly surprising in an Australia that has a long history of biological and cultural colonisation.
In passing, it is interesting to observe that in limiting responses to two ancestries the ancestry question makes it impossible to report multiple ancestries. In 2021, 35% of respondents in the whole Australian population reported ‘English’ ancestry and 32% ‘Australian’, both of which must include many generic responses. Others reported a generic ‘New Zealander’ ancestry which could subsume ‘New Zealand Māori’, Pākehā and perhaps other ancestries.
While two-only ancestries shed some light on ethnicities, limiting responses to two ancestries alone may mis-represent the complexity of Australians’ Indigenous, European, British, and Asian ancestries and may encourage reporting generic ancestries such as ‘Australian’ and ‘New Zealander’ as proxies for more complex ancestries or place-origins or ethnicities. The ABS needs to review how it asks questions about descent and ethnicity.
The term ‘ancestry’ is widely misunderstood. Even the ABS mixes up national / subnational places of birth/origin (eg ‘Bengali’), ethnicity (‘Afrikaan’), bloodlines (‘Anglo-Indian’), and uncertain combinations of these (‘Jewish’, or ‘Australian Aboriginal’, but not ‘European New Zealander’) in its reporting of ancestries). If the ABS want to know about ‘preferred’ places of origin of parents or grandparents – or something else – it needs to ask rather than imply this in its questions.
In reporting data for ‘Indigenous’ people as enumerated by it, the ABS should also not try to compare results for ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ Australians. Censuses show clearly that most Indigenous people have non-Indigenous ancestries also, so ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ are not mutually exclusive classes. Obviously, the ABS should continue comparing Indigenous results with those for all Australians.
Also, although a separate accounting of any single ethnic group might be questioned, the ABS should be asking a census question about Indigenous ethnicity, because institutions ask clients about Aboriginal and Torres Strait identity for their justice and welfare purposes. However, rather than asking about ‘origins’ the ABS should ask respondents directly in words that match those asked by other institutions: ‘is the person an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?’.
Finally, while under-enumeration of Indigenous people remains as large as has been estimated and while even larger numbers of census respondents do not respond to questions on origins or ancestry (1,233,495 or 4.8% of the total estimated resident population of Australia did not indicate an origin in 2021), it is not possible to know how many people might be represented by an Indigenous Voice, or how that representation might be achieved.
Nor, until numbers of people who actively identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander are known, can dis-proportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration and socio-economic disadvantage amongst some Indigenous people be known, let alone addressed. Socio-economic disadvantage is a consequence of remoteness and isolation as well as racial discrimination and it will continue thus if we cannot address it in terms that go beyond ‘reconciliation’.
Censuses are important for understanding a population, particularly in its geography. The ABS needs to review how its censuses might better ask for and report data on descent and ethnicity in line with the tests of the High Court as who might be regarded as an Aboriginal person.