Thursday, December 21, 2006

Australia's Aborigines - A Note on Demography

I am making this very brief reference post to this blog rather than the New England, Australia blog because it deals with Australia wide issues.

One of the things that interested me in looking at our indigenous people from a New England perspective was what I perceived to be a significant increase in the Aboriginal proportion of the population in certain areas. I now know that this perception was correct.

Since I wrote my first notes in this area I have found a very good article by J Taylor - Population and Diversity: Policy Implications of Emerging Indigenous Demographic Trends, Discussion Paper 283/2006, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.

I do not have the time to analyse this properly at present, but a few quick heads up points.

In 2001, the indigenous population reached 485,000. This figure will obviously be higher now, but I have yet to check the latest figures.

Of this total, 138,494 (1.1 per cent of the total population) lived in major cities, 92,988 (2.3 per cent of the population) in inner regional areas, 105,875 (5.3 per cent of the population) in outer regional areas, 40,161 (12.4 per cent of the population) in remote areas, 81,002 (45.4 per cent of the population) in very remote areas.

Part of the significant growth in indigenous numbers in recent years has come from those with part indigenous ancestry reclassifying themselves as indigenous, but indigenous birth rates have been far higher than the Australian average. This leads to faster indigenous growth rates than the national average and a very different demographic pyramid with much higher concentrations in younger age groups in the indigenous pyramid.

This has several implications. Among other things, it means that the indigenous proportion of the total population will continue to grow. It also means that the focus and needs of the indigenous population are different, more focus on jobs now, less on aging issues.

The indigenous population appears more mobile than the general population, although migration patterns are complex. For example, growth in indigenous populations in metro areas comes largely from in-migration of the young, partially offest by out-migration of married couples with children.

Within these complex migration patterns, there are a two features worthy of immediate note:

  • The first is the growth of reasonably significant size aboriginal towns, urban communities with populations measured in the thousands.
  • The second is the pattern of heavy migration from more remote areas into regional centres such as Dubbo, Broken Hill, Armidale or Tamworth. Because non-indigenous population growth in those centers has been lower, in some cases negative, the indigenous proportion of the population is well above the national average and climbing.

Those who read my blogs will know that I try to come at things from a different perspective. They will also know that I write from a country or regional, rather than metro, perspective. Both influence my approach on public policy issues.

My core complaint against current policy and rhetoric in regard to Australia's indigenous people is that it confuses an indentifying label - indigenous, aboriginal - with the real issues. Let me try to explain.

I first read about Port Keats (Wadeye) ten years ago. I was astonished. Here was a substantial town totally off the radar that seemed to lack every facility taken for granted in every Australian community. The fact that it had an overwhelmingly aboriginal population was beside the point.

Put this in another way. If there was a country town of the same size in NSW or Victoria with the same facilities it would be a major issue. Somehow, the fact that Wadeye was aboriginal was confusing the issue.

A second example.

The New England town of Kempsey has, I think, an aboriginal proportion of the population now over 14 per cent. That proportion of the population faces major problems in regard to unemployment and the social problems that come from deprivation.

Is this an aboriginal problem?

In one sense it is. Certainly if I were an aboriginal parent living in Kempsey I might be worried about my own kids. As any parent I would be worried, for example, about the impact on local schools. As a visitor to South West Rocks, I was certainly personally concerned that our car was stolen by a couple of aboriginal kids from nearby Macksville who used it to go on a mini crime spree.

But if we stand back, the public policy problem is not in fact anything to do with aboriginality as such, everything to do with economic and social problems especially among the young. And it is just not aboriginal young people who experience this. The public policy response needs to focus on this broader question.


Lexcen said...

Jim, have you ever considered how one man, Fred Hollows, could do so much to help the aboriginal community when so many bureaucrats, with so much money could do so little?

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a vey good example, Lexcen, and a very good point.

Fred Hollows did a remarkable job because of his dedication and focus. However, he wasn't able to address the broader problem of poor eye care among some aboriginal communities especially in remote areas because those problems linked to broader questions such as living conditions including simply proper access to water.

One of the points in the Taylor report on aborginal eye care was that over and beyond improved access to health services we also needed to fix the things that were creating the problems in the first case.

Following release of the Taylor report there was a meeting of aboriginal representatives at the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists to discuss the report. A key point made there, and this bears upon your second point,was that smaller indigenous communities were simply being overwhelmed by the number of people with an interest in their affairs. They couldn't cope.

Finally, and going back to your first point about Fred, in the midst of all the talk about things that have not worked, it would be very interesting to scope the things that have worked.

It would also be interesting to factor in a time perspective. It now takes 13-15 years to train a medical specialist from first entry to university. Before you can even start, you have to have a sufficient number of school students with the interest and necessary academic skills.

If I am right that Charles Perkins was the first aboriginal university graduate, even if I am wrong there can't have been very many,we have a zero base in 1965.

To move forward from this point, the number of aboriginal students in year 12 must first be increased, so that's a performance measure. Then the proportion of these going to university needs to be increased. So that's a second performance measure.

With time, the number with both an interest in and the capacity to do medicine increases. As these numbers increase, so do the numbers with an interest in doing a speciality outside general practice.

Fifty one years sounds like a long time, but it only equates to 3-4 specialist training cycles. The length of specialist training has in fact increased over the period, so call it 4-5.

Given these very long pipelines, I would expect to find (I do not know but will find out at some point)very few current specialists of aboriginal background, but with a much greater number in the pipeline. If this is correct, then we can expect to see many more over the next ten years.

Medicine is a special case because of the length of the timelines, but somewhat similar arguments hold in other areas as well.

Studies of business formation that I have looked at in the past suggest that business builders often have parents who were business builders in small amd medium enterprises. Further, business success depends upon access to capital and this often comes through networks from people with previous business success.

Again, I suspect that there was pretty much a zero aboriginal business base in 1965. Further, as I remember it, the initial attempts to kick-start aboriginal businesses using Government seed money had a pretty dismal record because of the absence of business skills among funding recipients.

It would be interesting to look at the position now. I suspect that we would find significant development in independent aboriginal business interests over the last twenty years, although I also suspect that its still smaller than the national average.

This has become a very long comment, but as always you keep me thinking!