Indigenous Australia’s rapid rise is shifting money and votes

There’s a long-term shift underway in Australia that all politicians should be watching. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Tony Abbott is spending this week in North-East Arnhem Land, part of his long-held hope “to be not just the Prime Minister but the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. We asked our experts: what stories does the PM need to hear while he’s in the Top End?

A dramatic change has been underway in Australia for some decades – yet few people know about it, or understand its far-reaching impacts.

Quite simply, official measurements show the number of First Australians has skyrocketed to far outstrip growth in any other sub-section of the national population. From 1981 to 2011, the number of Indigenous Australians increased by around 185% (compiled from Australian Bureau Statistics here and here.)

Where Indigenous Australians live. Healthy for Life Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services Report Card, 2013, CC BY

Contrary to the stereotypes, most of that population growth hasn’t been in the Top End or in remote areas. Instead, it has mainly occurred in capital cities and the regions around these, and especially in Sydney, Brisbane and their hinterlands. There is little doubt that trend will continue to erode the share of Indigenous Australians living in remote parts of the country.

So what’s driving all that growth? What are the consequences? And why might a new wave of Indigenous voters swing one way more than another?

670,000 strong and rising

An estimated 669,881 Australians were of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in 2011. By 2026, that number is expected to exceed 900,000.

The fast-growing Indigenous population is driven by a number of factors. These include higher levels of fertility than for other Australians and continued improvements in life expectancies. But there is more to it than just new Indigenous births outstripping deaths. The reasons for the rapid growth are more complex than that and are entwined with the historical oppression of the First Australians.

Australia’s Indigenous population is younger than the national average: in 2011, 35.8% of the Indigenous population was aged less than 15, compared with 18.3% in the non-Indigenous population. Healthy for Life: Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services Report Card, 2013, CC BY-NC-ND

The Census and other official data track who we are as a nation – including capturing Indigenous status. The Indigenous status question in the Census is based on self-identification. That means individuals can freely choose how they identify, and change this over time.

Although it is difficult to get a precise figure, much of the growth we have seen in the Indigenous population is from people who did not previously declare they were Indigenous doing so in later censuses.

As our society has begun to understand and seek to rectify past and present injustices, more people have become willing to declare they are Indigenous Australians. The land rights movement is one factor that has raised collective awareness of our Indigenous histories and cultures.

Estimates based on a survey conducted just four weeks after the 2011 Census suggested around 17% of Australians changed their Indigenous status. The majority of these switched from “non-Indigenous” or “not stated” to declaring themselves as Indigenous.

Almost all of that affinity switching occurs in capital cities and their hinterlands, which is where most Indigenous Australians now live. In every sense, the “new Indigenous” Australians living in our cities and suburbs are far removed from the most common media reporting of impoverished, remote First Australian communities.

Accentuating the trend, almost all (about 90%) of Indigenous Australians living in cities and married or in de facto relationships have a non-Indigenous partner. Offspring from these mixed partnerships are highly likely to be declared as Indigenous on the birth certificate, accelerating the growth of the Indigenous-identifying cohort.

The consequences of more Australians identifying as Indigenous are far-reaching.

Shifting government funding

With so many more people identifying as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, one unintended consequence is that it’s shifting funding away from parts of Australia that are home to some of the poorest Indigenous communities.

In total numbers, New South Wales and Queensland lead the way for being home to the most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (208,476 and 188,954 respectively in 2011). That’s about three times more Indigenous Australians each than live in the Northern Territory.

But almost one in three people (30%) in the Northern Territory is Indigenous, still a far greater proportion than the national average of 3%. Around 80%-85% of the NT government’s revenue comes from the Commonwealth, mostly as a general purpose grant from money raised by the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

States or territories with Indigenous population proportions above the Australian average receive a greater share of GST, for reasons explained in this GST Distribution Review for Treasury.

In the Northern Territory in particular, the total population living in very remote communities with poor socio-economic conditions is growing, yet the Territory’s share of the national Indigenous population is rapidly diminishing. As a direct result, in 2014 about A$110 million a year was lost from the GST-derived grants to the Northern Territory.

The NT’s ability to tackle issues of Indigenous well-being is diminishing with every percentage point shift for the Indigenous-identifying population residing in urban Australia.

Shifting allegiances?

The remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory have shifted their votes twice in recent years. In the 2012 Territory election, these bush communities reversed three decades of voting Labor and voted for Country Liberal politicians (all but one, Indigenous).

Then in the last federal election, the Aboriginal bush vote returned to Labor and saved the Labor MHR for Lingiari. So remote community Aborigines are becoming more instrumental in their voting, as well as less predictable.

But there’s also an emerging national trend to watch: more affluent urban Indigenous voters, who may be more open to voting conservative than before.

Leading from the top: Australia’s first Indigenous woman in federal parliament, Labor Senator Nova Peris (left), and Liberal Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Religion, race, youth and politics

If you look closely, most of the nationally measurable improvements in Indigenous employment and education outcomes are concentrated in a few major cities and their surrounding areas.

This has tantalising implications. For example, before World War II most Catholics voted Labor, mostly for historical reasons or because of occupational class-based identification.

When Phillip Lynch became the first Catholic minister in Malcolm Fraser’s conservative government, it was seen as unique. Now, the Prime Minister and Treasurer, along with nearly half of the other cabinet members, are Catholic. As individuals and families have moved up the social ladder, Catholicism has become no longer a marker of pro-Labor voting.

Old assumptions about which way Indigenous Australians vote have been shaken up in recent elections, with Cape York community leader Robbie Salee pictured campaigning in 2012 alongside the now Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Will this happen with young, upwardly mobile, Indigenous-identifying residents of the major cities? Is former Labor president Warren Mundine, now the Prime Minister’s top Indigenous adviser, a harbinger of such socio-political change?

Perhaps Ken Wyatt – Australia’s first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, who won the Western Australian seat of Hasluck for the Liberals – will be the Phillip Lynch of our times. If this hypothesis is correct, then all the old assumptions of Indigenous politics could be overturned.

So when he starts planning his next week living and working with an Indigenous community next year the Prime Minister could reconsider going bush – and instead end up staying in the marginal seat heartland of western Sydney.


Further reading in this Abbott in Arnhem Land series:
Birthing on Country could deliver healthier babies and communities
Welcome to my Country: seeing the true beauty of life in Bawaka
‘PM for Aboriginal Affairs’ Abbott faces his biggest hearing test
Australia’s 7 Up: the revealing study tracking babies to adults
Well-connected Indigenous kids keen to tap new ways to save lives
How crowded homes can lead to empty schools in the bush
Would you risk losing your home for a few weeks of work?
Listen to your elders: inviting Aboriginal parents back to school
Indigenous Australians need a licence to drive, but also to work
Keeping Indigenous teens in school by reinventing the lessons
Explainer: Can a DNA test reveal if you’re an Indigenous Australian?
Explainer: what Indigenous constitutional recognition means