IAN BOWIE. How many Aboriginal Australians are there?

It is commonly said that there are about 800,000 ‘indigenous’ Australians. In fact, the number of Aboriginal Australians may be substantially fewer.

800,000 derives from an estimate by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which, at best, is of the number of people in Australia who regardless of any other ancestry have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestors. It is not an estimate of the number of Aboriginal Australians under the tripartite test established by Australia’s High Court in 1992 (Mabo v Queensland).

In February 2020 the High Court (Love and Thoms v Commonwealth of Australia) re-affirmed the High Court’s test, that to be regarded as an Aboriginal a person must: be biologically descended from Aboriginal people; self-identify as an Aboriginal person; and be recognised as a member of an Aboriginal group by its elders or those with traditional authority to determine its membership.

So, how many Aboriginal Australians might there be under this tripartite test?

Firstly, on the number of Australians who have Aboriginal descent, the ABS divides Australians into ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ on the basis of responses to a census question asking about ‘Aboriginal or Torres Strait origin’. It enumerated 649,171 Australians as being ‘of indigenous origin’ in its 2016 Census, much higher than in previous censuses.

The word origin is capable of different interpretations. Most Australians ‘of indigenous origin’ are likely to be of mixed racial and cultural origins after more than two centuries of intermingling (censuses show that fewer than twenty per cent of opposite-sex ‘indigenous’ couples with children include two partners of indigenous origin). However, if the word is taken to be synonymous with descent, the ABS’s enumeration may meet the first part of the High Court’s test.

Secondly, on the question of how many people identify as Aboriginal, people do not necessarily identify with any of their ethnic origins. The ABS does not collect data explicitly on racial or cultural identity, but it does ask questions in censuses about languages spoken and ancestries. On languages, 63,754 people (fewer than ten per cent of people of indigenous origin) were enumerated in 2016 as speaking indigenous languages at home.

In the 2016 census, when asked to nominate up to two ancestries, 159,416 Australians (fewer than a quarter of Australians of indigenous origin) reported having an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry. As with data on languages the data on ancestry (as in earlier censuses) suggest that many Australians enumerated as of indigenous origin do not identify strongly with any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ethnicity.

It is possible that people of indigenous origin may have claimed an ancestry in some of Australia’s many cultural/linguistic groups rather than as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, but that cannot be known. It is possible also that they claimed ‘Australian’ ancestry but that is what more than thirty percent of all Australians enumerated (both indigenous and non-indigenous) did, which doesn’t help very much!

Thirdly, on how many people are recognised as Aboriginal, Aboriginal Land Council membership could be a guide but comprehensive data are hard to come by. In New South Wales, the State with the largest number of Australians of indigenous origin enumerated in 2016, 15,426 people (equivalent to barely ten per cent of people of indigenous origin aged 15 and over in the 2016 census) were enrolled to vote for Aboriginal Land Councils in 2019.

In Tasmania, the State with the smallest number of Australians of indigenous origin, fewer than 200 were enrolled to vote for the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania in 2017/8. The Tasmanian experience in 2002, when 1298 applied for inclusion on the Tasmanian indigenous roll for ATSIC elections but only 750 were eventually judged entitled to vote, illustrates just how difficult it can be to win recognition.

If the number of Australians who meet the High Court’s tripartite test for Aboriginality is significantly smaller than that estimated by the ABS there are political implications.

For example, should an Aboriginal ‘Voice’ ever be enacted in line with the Uluru Statement, the High Court may need to be convinced that this Voice is representative of Aboriginal Australians as defined by it. Without knowing how many Australians identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, let alone within specific cultural/linguistic groups, a comprehensive Aboriginal electoral roll might not even be even possible.

Also, to the extent that the ABS’s numbers of Australians of indigenous origin are larger than of those who actually identify as Aboriginal Australians, indigenous disadvantage may be more profound than is generally understood from Closing the Gap reports which rely extensively on self-reporting as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander by people accessing mainstream programs such as for welfare, health and education.

Unfortunately, much indigenous disadvantage is viewed through the prism of race. Undoubtedly, discrimination on the basis of colour or appearance is implicated in such things as the fact that 28% of Australia’s prison population self-identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, but this obscures the fact that most disadvantage arises because of cultural difficulties in articulating with mainstream culture.

Such difficulties for some include having English as a second language, and learned inhibitions and grievances. However, these problems for indigenous Australians are shared with others who have origins in other than western European cultures. For some there are problems also which arise from living in small communities and remote regions (especially where there is self-segregation). But, again, these problems are shared with other Australians.

On the last point, only 19 per cent of Australians of indigenous origin were enumerated in 2016 as living in regions categorised by the ABS as ‘remote’ and ‘very remote’, where disadvantage is widespread amongst non-indigenous Australians also – whose numbers there are rather larger than those of Australians of indigenous origin.

The ABS considers that its censuses significantly under-enumerate the number of Australians of indigenous origin, while data from both censuses and other sources suggest that there may be significantly fewer Aboriginal Australians than suggested by the ABS’s estimate. The inconsistencies do not provide a firm footing for policies to addressing racial discrimination and indigenous disadvantage, or indeed to know more about indigenous cultures.

Ethnicity is a slippery concept, embracing any or all of racial, cultural and place (among other) associations. The ABS is not required to ask questions about ethnicity in its censuses but, if it is to attempt this, its questions needed to be worded without ambiguity and to be more clearly in line the High Court’s definition of Australians Aboriginality.


In a former life Ian Bowie was an academic, holding staff appointments in Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at universities in Victoria, Scotland and New South Wales and teaching courses at other universities in New Zealand and Australia over more than thirty years. Subsequently he practised as a consultant planner for eight years in New South Wales.

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