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Australian Census: Indigenous Australia improves, but closing the gap is a long way off

Peter Gurruwiwi of the Galpu nation getting ready to meet Dr Jill Charker from the Australian Bureau of Statisics during census collection in 2011. AAP/David Sproule

AUSTRALIA BY NUMBERS: Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the first batch of its 2011 census data. We’ve asked some of the country’s top demographers and statisticians to crunch the numbers on Australia’s population: how we live, where we work, who our families are and how we spend our time.

Here, economist and demographer Nicholas Biddle looks at Australia’s Indigenous population as it stands in 2011, and how far from “Closing the Gap” we really are.

The 1990s was supposed to be the “reconciliation decade”. Despite 250,000-300,000 Australians walking across the Harbour Bridge twelve years ago, it is clear that many of the aims of the movement have not been met.

A lot has happened in the subsequent years in Indigenous affairs. This includes the dismantling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the Northern Territory Intervention and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations.

It is difficult to tell what effect these and other events have had on the relationship between the majority Australian population and the country’s First People. Alongside these high-level policy changes though has been a focus on statistical equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, typified by the recent focus on six “Closing the Gap” targets.

The release of data from the 2011 Census provides an opportunity to re-calibrate our focus. Consistency in census questions over a long period of time allows us to take a step back and look at long-term change in a number of important socioeconomic measures. At the same time, the geographic spread and depth of the census allows us to drill down into particular locations or look at how change is varying alongside different policy approaches.

We will have to wait several more weeks before customisable data is available. However, before then, we can look at some broad national and jurisdictional changes using the first release Census data.

Indigenous education levels are improving, but not at satisfactory rates. AAP/Peter Holmes a Court

Nationally, there were 548,370 Indigenous Australians counted in the 2011 Census, a 20.5% increase from the 2006 population count. This is a much faster rate of growth than for the non-Indigenous population, meaning that the Indigenous share of the overall census count increased from 2.4% to 2.7%.

These are not population estimates (that is, they do not take into account the substantial number of Indigenous people missed in the census count). However, they do imply that the Indigenous population is continuing to grow.

The median income of households in which Indigenous Australians lived in 2006 was $912 (in today’s dollars) per week. By 2011, this had increased to $991, a considerable increase in purchasing power. However, the increase in income for other households was almost as high meaning that, relative to the rest of the population, relative socioeconomic position was more stable.

In the long term, substantial changes in Indigenous access to financial resources are unlikely to occur without significant investments in human capital, both by government, and Indigenous Australians themselves. Although the headline target for the “Closing the Gap” agenda is the elimination of the life expectancy gap, in numerical terms education dominates.

The following graph shows what has happened to the proportion of Indigenous Australians who have completed Year 12 (or equivalent) over the past decade. Separate bars are given for each State/Territory, as well as for all of Australia.

Per cent of Indigenous population who have completed Year 12 (or equivalent) 2001, 2006 and 2011 Censuses

The figure shows a steady increase in the proportion of Indigenous Australians who had completed Year 12 over the decade, from 19.4% in 2001 to 25.4% in 2011. This may not seem like much, but we must remember that most of this increase has come from recent cohorts of youth and young adults.

As with income, however, it doesn’t just matter what an individual’s own education level is, but what it is relative to everyone else. The following figure gives the ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous percentages.

Ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous Year 12 (or equivalent) completion. 2001, 2006 and 2011 censuses

Looking at it in relative terms, the story is not as positive. There have been some gains, but improvements in the education levels of the non-Indigenous population mean that Indigenous Australians are still at a considerable disadvantage in the labour market.

We should never ignore the considerable investments made by Indigenous Australians in schooling and post-school education. At the time of the 2011 Census, there were 173,517 Indigenous Australians counted as participating in preschool, school or a post-school education institute, a rise of 30,772 from 2006.

Using the census, we can see that over the long-term some things are getting better. But, much like how the reconciliation decade of the 1990s saw some positive change but considerable work still to be done, the “human capital decade” of the early 21st century can best be categorised as a qualified success in Indigenous affairs.

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