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Image: About Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics ABOUT ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER STATISTICS

History of the Commonwealth definition and Census question
  • Commonwealth definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • History of the Census Question

    Commonwealth definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

    The term Indigenous is used to refer to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. According to the most widely adopted definition of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (the 'Commonwealth working definition'):

    "An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is
      • a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent,
      • who identifies as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin and
      • who is accepted as such by the community with which the person associates".
    This definition was developed during the period 1967 to 1978 and is now widely accepted by Commonwealth and other government agencies.

    In 1995, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) formally adopted the following question as the standard for identifying the Indigenous population:
        Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?
        For persons of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin mark both 'Yes' boxes


        Response tick boxNo
        Image - response tick boxYes, Aboriginal
        Image - Response tick boxYes, Torres Strait Islander

    The standard question is based on the Commonwealth definition of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and is used in the Census and in other surveys conducted by the ABS. The ABS standard question assists in developing complete and consistent data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over time.
    History of the Census Question

    Since 1911, Australian censuses have used eleven different question and answer sets to record information about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Therefore there has been a long evolutionary process leading to the current standard question.

    From 1911 to 1966 all census questions on origins used the word 'race'. Some also asked for blood fractions or whether a person was 'half-caste'. Population counts for this period are relatively constant, approximately between 75,000 and 85,000, but the quality of these early counts is questionable.

    Prior to the 1967 referendum it was a constitutional requirement to exclude Aboriginal people from official population figures. The census questions asked about race to establish numbers of 'half-castes' and 'full-bloods'. 'Full-bloods' (i.e. those persons with more than 50% Aboriginal blood) were then subtracted from the official population figure.

    After the 1967 referendum, the question on the census form was changed to 'What is each person's racial origin?' The question was used in the 1971 and 1976 censuses. At this time, large increases in the count occurred. Between 1966 and 1971 the count increased by 44.6% and between 1971 and 1976 it increased by 38.8%.

    The 1971 Census officially included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia's population count for the first time.

    Another significant shift in questioning approach occurred between the 1976 and 1981 Censuses. As a result of adverse public reaction to the use of the word 'racial', this was removed from the question for the 1981 Census. All censuses since 1981 have used the same question to determine Indigenous status: 'Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?'.

    In the 1996 Census, a further change occurred to allow persons with both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins to nominate both. Since 1996 the question has remained the same.

    Further Information

    Yearbook 2004 (cat. no. 1301.0) - 'The 1967 Aborigines Referendum (Feature Article)'



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