Friday, July 06, 2007

Regional Variation and Australia's Aborigines

I am using this post to pull together in a simple way a number of the points I have made on this and my other blogs in recent months. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that those who live in Australia's major metro areas do not understand the force of the points I have been making.

The first theme has been the need to recognise the importance of regional variation in Australia. I have made this point in the context of Australian history and of public policy in general. I have also made the same point in the context of our policy towards Australia's indigenous people.

The second theme is a New England theme, the way in which the absence of political structures to represent New England has led to political neglect and regional decline. I have argued this point in multiple posts, using very specific arguments and illustrations.

My New England focus, experience and passion has helped form my regional focus. In turn, this has been informed by my experiences in the power structures as a policy adviser.

Now consider the following map drawn from the census data.

Drawn from the census, it shows the distribution of our indigenous population across New South Wales relative to the total population grouped by statistical division. I hope that the map is readable, but won't know until I have posted.

My comments follow the map.

When you look at the map you will see a white spot on the lower right. That is the ACT and hence excluded.

Then you see a yellow patch on the right hand side a bit below centre. This is Sydney, an area where the Aboriginal population is between one and two per cent of the population.

Look north, and you will see that the New England New State area has the highest proportion of Aboriginal people in the country. This ranges from two to three per cent in the Hunter Valley to three to five per cent on the North Coast, five to ten per cent in New-England North West, ten to fourteen per cent on the Northern Plains.

This high concentration reflects the fact that this area was the wealthiest part of NSW in Aboriginal times as indeed it is today in raw resource terms. Herein lies my indictment of the Sydney Government as well as my support for New England separation and regionalism in general, the inability (as I see it) of Sydney to even recognise, let alone deal with in any coherent way, New England's problems.

Dealing with the Aborigines first.

Take the Inner Sydney statistical region. This area stretches from Botany Bay through to the Harbour and includes Redfern, the block, and La Perouse. In 2006 it had an indigenous population of 3,980, falling to 3,830 in 2001 before rising to 4,099 in 2006.

Now compare this to Mid North Coast. In 1996 it had an indigenous population of 7,928, rising to 10,071 in 2001 and then 12,198 in 2006.

Recently I had cause to review the the position of NSW Aborigines on a regional basis.

The city of Sydney, a slice of the Inner City Statistical region, had just 1,981 people claiming Aboriginal descent at the 2006 census. This includes the famous block. I found a page of organisations apparently dedicated to meeting the needs of this group, some of whom also served the 2,118 Aborigines in the rest of the Inner Sydney statistical region. In addition, the Sydney Government has a formal Minister for Redfern.

Now compare this to Kempsey on the Mid North coast.

In 2006, this local government area had an Aboriginal population of 2,540 out of a total population including coastal sea change areas of 25,913. To match Sydney, Kempsey would need more than a page of welfare organisations and one and a quarter Government Ministers. It has neither.

This is crazy stuff. I do not know whether or not Sydney's small numbers of Aborigines are well served by so much attention, nor to what degree Kempsey's Aborigines are disadvantaged.

What I do know is that when you look at the numbers, the improvement of the condition of New England's Aboriginal people is not, as it is in Sydney, a peripheral issue, but a core public policy issue. Rather, it would be if we had our own Government. This links, in turn, to the need for real economic development that will benefit all New Englanders.

In an earlier post on the New England Australia blog, I spoke with some bitterness of Professor Vinson's conclusions that the majority of NSW's poor towns were to be found in New England. How could such a rich area have been reduced to this?

There is, I think, a strong correlation between economic deprivation and the relative size of Aboriginal populations because New England's Aborigines are most vulnerable to the changes that have taken place. I do not want to overstate this, but the correlation is there.

Our Aborigines tend to be less well educated, so declines in job opportunities in particular areas hits them hard.

Our coastal Aborigines, and here New England has some of the largest tribal groups who have retained links to their cultural past including language in a way not seen elsewhere in NSW, risk being marginalised in their own territories because of rising real estate prices brought about by sea-change.

Then we have the problem of internal Aboriginal migration across New England that can, as in Armidale, threaten to make local Aboriginals a minority among the Aboriginal population in their own country. I do not have earlier data to fully support my case, but over the ten years 1996 to 2006, Armidale's Aboriginal population grew by 199 (by comparison, the City of Sydney grew by 137) from 1074 to 1273. Much of this growth came from continuing migration.

I will stop at this point because this post has actually taken me a very long time to write because of the need to do data checks. However, I hope that I have at least made the point that there are major regional variations that it is necessary to take into account in looking at history and in developing policies and programs.

Postscript

Neil (Ninglun) made an interesting comment on this post:

On Aboriginal population figures: there must be a certain fuzziness there, don't you think, though how much I am not sure. After all, the census simply tells us where they were on a given night of the week in a given year.

As you well may know, the Aboriginal population of Sydney would have that night included however many people from Moree and many other parts of the country. I know that in Redfern/Waterloo there is constant coming and going, and Aboriginal people aroound the city that I have talked to from time to time have hailed from all over, including Central Australia. Just a thought.

Neil's comment links to what may be a real issue with the numbers. For that reason, I thought that I should record the comment on the main post.

Like Neil, I was actually a little surprised at the small number of Aboriginal people in the City of Sydney and, more broadly, Inner Sydney, although the numbers were not huge at the last census either.

The first thing to note here is that the biggest concentration of Aboriginal people in Greater Sydney are in fact in Western Sydney. This includes people who used to live in Inner Sydney but who moved out for a variety of reasons.

The second thing is that the very noticeable Aboriginal population in the Redfern/Waterloo area does include a number of people from out of town who stay for varying lengths of time.

There are in fact two measures in the census, location on the night of the census plus place of usual residence. Now the population figures I quoted are based on usual place of residence, not location on the night of the census. I tried to get the second to cross-check but was unable to do so.

The numbers on the night of the census would almost certainly be higher than numbers measured by usual place of residence because of the presence of visitors, some of whom may in fact be longer term stayers even though they still give home as the usual place of residence.

I do not think that this affects the argument I was putting, but it is still a point to be aware of.

2 comments:

ninglun said...

What you say about the imbalance between regions is very true, though I am reluctant, as you know, to see new statism as a solution. I suspect the drift, and I am not at all happy with it, is actually towards the states withering on the vine anyway...

On Aboriginal population figures: there must be a certain fuzziness there, don't you think, though how much I am not sure. After all, the census simply tells us where they were on a given night of the week in a given year. As you well may know, the Aboriginal population of Sydney would have that night included however many people from Moree and many other parts of the country. I know that in Redfern/Waterloo there is constant coming and going, and Aboriginal people aroound the city that I have talked to from time to time have hailed form all over, including Central Australia. Just a thought.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning Neil. Good to see you up and about.

Yes, the states are withering on the vine. I will convince you one day on new states as part of the solution!

Your point on the transient population is interesting.

There are two measures in the census, location on the night of the census, then place of usual residence. I generally use the second.

In the City of Sydney's case, you might well expect there to be more including visitors than usual residents.

Further, some longer term visitors as opposed to short term visitors might well still give their country as place of usual residence.

I tried to check this by looking at the numbers on location on the night of the census as compared to place of usual residence but was not able to do this.The data does not appear to be available.

So in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I have to conclude that Sydney's real Aboriginal population may well be higher than than the official numbers.

My thanks for getting me to think of this. I will add a PS to this post pointing to the problem. Must be fair, you know!