This focus seems appropriate for this week is NAIDOC Week, an annual week falling in the first full week of July that celebrates the achievements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. You will find the history of NAIDOC Week here.
A unifying theme is selected each year. This year the theme is "Our Languages Matter." Again appropriately, my current Armidale Express series focuses on the mystery around the the Aboriginal Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language found on the New England Tablelands.You will find the opening column here.
I have written a fair bit on the language question because it interests me and I have thought it important. With so many Aboriginal languages each with different dialects, retention and revival is a significant problem. We missed a huge opportunity in the sixties and early seventies to record many languages still spoken in at least some form by elderly men and women. Sadly, the then strong interest dissipated in the absence of funding.
Returning to the census, it records that 649,171 people identified as being of ATSI origin in 2016. This represented 2.8% of the population in the 2016 – up from 2.5% in 2011, and 2.3% in 2006.
The rise in the proportion is due partly to a higher birth rate, more I think to growing identification of people as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. As a simple example of this process, children with one ATSI parent may choose to identify as ATSI, compounding numbers..
The ATSI population is dominated by Aboriginal people. Of the 649,1710 people who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in 2016, 91% were of Aboriginal origin, 5.0% were of Torres Strait Islander origin and 4.1% identified as being of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.
Many Australians think that the ATSI population is predominantly to be found in Northern Territory. In fact, NSW with 33.3% of the ATSI population remains, as it has done for many years, the state or territory with the largest ATSI population. However, expressed as a percentage of the total population, the proportion is highest in the Northern Territory (25.5%) followed surprisingly by Tasmania (4.6%) and then Queensland (4.0%) and WA (3.1%).
Unlike the majority of other Australians, most ATSI people live outside outside the capital cities. Only Canberra (99.5%), Adelaide (53.8%) and Melbourne (50.4%) hold more than half their state or territory ATSI population.
Greater Sydney has the largest absolute number of ATSI residents by a considerable margin, more than the total ATSI population in the Northern territory, but only 32.4% of the NSW ATSI population.
One side effect of this is that as the regional and especially the inland populations stagnates or even declines, the proportion of the ATSI population increases through a combination of natural increases and migration on the Aboriginal side, emmigration on the non-Aboriginal side. . .
While I have looked at this trend in the past, I don't presently have access to my previous NSW spreadsheets, my impression is that the trend is accelerating.
As a snapshot, Tamworth Regional Council has 6,031 ATSI residents out of a total population of 59,63 or 10.1%; Moree Plains Shire has 2,945 ATSI residents out of a population of 13,195 or 21.6%; Armidale Regional Council has 2,174 ATSI residents out of a population of 29,449 or 7.4%; Kempsey has 3,353 ATSI residents out of a population of 28 885 or 11.6%. I haven't checked properly the numbers for Dubbo, there is some form of statistical definition problem there, but I think the ATSI numbers are over 10,000 now. In Barnaby Joyce's New England electorate, the ATSI population is now 12,946 or 8.4%. In the huge Parkes electorate, the ATSI population is 24,506 or 15.9%.
Just to put these numbers in perspective, the City of Sydney which includes the inner city areas such as Redfern long regarded as Aboriginal centres has 2, 413 ATSI residents out of a population of 200, 374 or 1.2%.
These types of changes have significant statistical, political and policy implications.
As recently as ten years ago, the common policy assumption was that Aboriginal people should and were moving to the city because of employment opportunities. The 2006 census showed out-migration from at least Sydney and especially from places like Blactown within Sydney because there were no jobs. Conditions on the social housing estates in which many Aboriginal people lived were also deteriorating, while others found themselves socially isolated as the estates were broken up in an attempt to alleviate the social problems that had emerged. Many Aboriginal people and especially those with families began to move back to home country.
There was also migration to the bigger regional centres where market rents were lower, social housing more readily available, with at least some jobs.This created another set of difficulties.
These trends seem to have accelerated, although I have not done the detailed analysis required to really support that conclusion. The problem with evidence based policy is that if you ask the wrong questions, if you select the wrong evidence you are going to get the wrong conclusions. If I'm right on the trends, a fair bit of current policy requires a fundamental rethink.