Indigenous Settlements of Australia

Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Human Settlements), Series 2
Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54790 4

Indigenous Population Change, Migration and Mobility

A marked increase has occurred in the Indigenous population from 1986 to 1996 as indicated by the Census findings (see Table 3). Between 1991 and 1996 the Indigenous population, as recorded by the Census, increased by about one third, to just under 353,000 people. The percentage of the Indigenous population of the whole Australian population has moved from 0.43% in 1986, to 0.98% in 1996.

However the determination of Indigenous identity and the size of the Indigenous population via the national Census has become a complex methodological problem (Ross 1999A). Not all of the people who self-acknowledge their Indigenous ancestry may identify as Indigenous people in the Census, and not all of the self-identifying Indigenous people necessarily have Indigenous ancestry (or 'origin', to use the Census wording), due to adoptive practices.

"About half of the increase in Indigenous population counts from 1991 to 1996 can be readily explained by births, deaths, coding changes or migration. Factors which may help to explain the remaining increase include changes in the rate at which children with only one Indigenous parent are identified as Indigenous; changes in the propensity of Indigenous people to record themselves as such on the census form; improvements to census enumeration procedures; and changes in the rates of non-response to the question on Indigenous origin (Ross 1999). The impact on census counts of people first discovering their Indigenous origin in recent years (for example, among those who were taken away from their families as children..) is unknown." (ABS 1999:11, Cat. No. 4704.0.)

Table 3: Change in Indigenous Population Sizes, 1986 to 1996
State Total Indigenous populations by Census Years % Indigenous population of whole population
  1986 1991 1996 1986 1991 1996
NSW 58999 69999 101485 1.10 1.23 1.69
Vic 12600 16729 21474 0.31 0.40 0.49
Qld 61250 70102 95518 2.38 2.38 2.88
SA 14285 16223 20444 1.06 1.16 1.44
WA 37786 41769 50793 2.70 2.64 2.97
Tas 6716 8882 13873 1.54 1.96 3.03
NT 34738 39893 46277 22.66 23.08 24.44
ACT 1059 1592 2899 0.43 0.57 0.98
TOTALS 227433 265189 352763      

[Source: ABS 1996B,C.]

Inter-census counts also reveal an ever-increasing urban Indigenous population. This is not however due solely to urban drift or migration as has been the trend amongst the rural non-indigenous population for some time. It is now widely held that the increases in the urban Indigenous population are strongly influenced by the change in the propensity for individuals to identify as Indigenous (Taylor and Bell 1999, ABS Cat. No. 4708.0).

The limited research suggests that Indigenous migration does not play as big a role as one might expect in remote and some rural areas. Indigenous demography has been found to be characterised by marked inter- and intra- community mobility with circular movements around an area. Taylor and Bell (1996 & 1999) have found that, at the inter-state and country-to-city level, most inter-regional moves by Indigenous people in remote areas cancel each other out. In these areas, Indigenous mobility patterns approximate constant circulation rather than migration with the development of localized, as opposed to national, networks of movement. This can create, in effect, two distinct populations in remote regions, a relatively stable and long standing (albeit locally mobile) Indigenous resident group and a chronically transient non-indigenous group.

As we have entered the 21st century there has been much publicity about the ongoing decline of Australian rural economies under the forces of economic globalization, climate change and land degradation. There has also been concern about the so-called 'haemorraging of the bush', the migration of non-indigenous people from many small rural town to regional centres or capital cities. Interestingly it is often the relatively stable local Indigenous population who become the core group and economic base of such towns once the non-Aboriginal population has declined. Let us take the example of Tennant Creek.

The rural urban case study of Tennant Creek

Tennant Creek was originally a telegraph station on the Overland Telegraph Line constructed in the 1870s. The O.T. Line facilitated the pastoral development of the Barkly region which in turn drew on Aboriginal labour and catalysed the establishment of long-term pastoral settlements for the families of the workers. The town of Tennant Creek emerged out of a local goldrush in 1933, but it was governed under the provisions of the Mining Ordinance until 1954. Although Aboriginal Town Camps had been sporadically in existence since the 1870s, the Mining Registrar forbid the employment or accommodation of Aboriginal people in the town. (Lea 1989:189-191.) With the replacement of gold by copper mining in the 1950s, the urban economy expanded and population growth continued. Aboriginal employment in town was gradually introduced (starting with sanitary workers) and in the 1960s the Commonwealth Government established an official Aboriginal camping area. By the late 1960s the town's Aboriginal population could be categorised into Housing Commission tenants, official Town Camp dwellers and informal Town Camp dwellers. (Lea 1989:193-194.)

The Aboriginal population of Tennant Creek grew from 84 in 1965, to 270 in 1978, and 364 in 1982. There had been a gradual reduction in Aboriginal pastoral employment throughout this entire period, punctuated with an Equal Wages case in 1965 and the Commonwealth granting of Award Wages to Aboriginal pastoral employees of the Northern Territory in 1965. As well as this rural drift into town, there were a range of 'urban-pull' benefits including social welfare payments. However population movement was not entirely unidirectional into Tennant Creek, but rather Tennant Creek became the regional centre in a regional kinship network which also facilitated constant movements of people back out to discrete Aboriginal settlements. (Lea 1989:194-197.)

The 1970s also saw the introduction of self-government in the Northern Territory, the establishment of the Tennant Creek Town Council (1978) and the setting up of the Housing Associations Scheme which facilitated the formation of independent Aboriginal organizations in Tennant Creek, as well as the capacity to obtain tenurial security over urban land. During the 1980s and 1990s the dramatic increase in Aboriginal population continued (see Table 4) as bush people sought health services, education and employment opportunities, accompanied by the conversion of the informal town camps into formal ones with housing and infrastructure. In the same period there was a gradual decline in the non-Aboriginal population due largely to the closure of the mines. At the time of writing this paper, local political leaders expected the proportion of the Aboriginal population in Tennant Creek to exceed 50% in the 2001 Census.

Table 4: Population Change in Tennant Creek Town Council Area
  1986 1991 1996
Non-Indigenous 2649 2336 2008
Indigenous 690 928 1517
Not stated 137 177 277
Total: 3476 3441 3802

Source: ABS Census

A second rural urban case study - Dajarra

Let us now consider the case study of the township of Dajarra in north-west Queensland, where the Indigenous population has progressively taken over more and more of the town's infrastructure support functions, albeit without the same dramatic population shifts that can be seen in Tennant Creek.

Dajarra was founded in c1917 as a railway town and was a large droving and rail-trucking centre for live beef cattle throughout the middle part of the 20th century. A substantial Aboriginal population from the Georgina River basin was sustained by employment on the surrounding pastoral properties and railway line maintenance. The town's economic boom declined after the 1960s with the introduction of road truck transportation for cattle, and then further again in the mid-1980s with the closing down of the railway station. The town falls within the Cloncurry Shire but due to the anomalies of local government electoral areas, the closest regional centre is Mt Isa. The Dajarra residents seldom travel to the smaller centre of Cloncurry and nor do the people of Cloncurry have any significant social or economic relations with Dajarra.

Table 5: Population Change in Dajarra in North-west Queensland
  1976 1986 1991 1996
Non-Indigenous 50 30 30 30
Indigenous 250 146 154 171
Not stated - 4 6 3
Total: 300 180 190 204

Sources: Mt Isa Welfare Council (1976), ABS Census.

Since the Queensland Aboriginal Acts were relaxed in the early 1970s permitting freedom of movement by Indigenous people, there has been steady out-migration of a portion of the Aboriginal population of Dajarra to the regional centre of Mt Isa. However since the early 1980s the Aboriginal population, because of customary and historical connections to the area has stabilized and gradually increased. The Aboriginal population of Dajarra swells during the December to March period when people return for Christmas, school holidays and station breaks. Visitors (related kin) come from Mt Isa, Lake Nash and the east coast. There is also significant residential mobility within the town, a common characteristic of Aboriginal settlements. (Memmott et al 1997:24-39.)

In the last two decades the Aboriginal community (through what was originally its housing organization) have taken ownership of the town store (with petrol pump) and a large community hall. Non-indigenous residents continue to own the hotel and a roadhouse. Government funding continues for a school, police station and health clinic, but the post office (with its bank agency) has closed. Aboriginal residents are employed at the school and clinic as well as with the Shire Council to carry out essential services (rubbish collection, town water supply).

The percentage of non-indigenous population in Dajarra has been relatively constant from 1976 to 1991 at about 17% and is similar to that found in the larger discrete (or Deed-of-Grant-in-Trust) settlements in Queensland (Moran 2001). It seems feasible that in the future, the Indigenous populations and agencies of places such as Dajarra, could carry out more and more of the towns' infrastructure support functions, rather than depending on non-indigenous local government authorities.


The backyard of a conventional rented house on an urban block in the town of Dajarra, North-west Queensland
Figure 3. The backyard of a conventional rented house on an urban block in the town of Dajarra, North-west Queensland. The tenant has added an external cooking, sleeping and socialising area, complete with iron windbreak in order to adapt the house design to the typically Indigenous outdoor lifestyle.(Photo by S. Long, AERC.)