Malcolm Baalman, PHAA Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser
Australia’s population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 25% larger in the 2021 Census data than the result recorded five years ago.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals make up 3.2% of the national population recorded in the 5-yearly census data.
The population statistics are also showing more older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2011 just 21,000 people in Australia were recorded as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 65. In the 2016 census this has grown to 31,000, but in the 2021 data it is nearly 48,000 people.
The median age of recorded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has also drifted up from 23 years to 24 years of age.
It’s hard to interpret this as all being due to actual growth in the population’s demography. Part of the cause may be due to more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals responding to the Census survey, or more people indicating that they identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Macquarie University Professor Bronwyn Carlson discusses some of the issues in interpreting the data in The Conversation here.
Carlson also notes that the rising reported population figure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is only now, after more than two centuries, reaching the estimated population believed to be present prior to colonisation.
But while the drivers behind the changing population data are clouded, some of the outcome is likely due to steadily improving health, and as a result longevity, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Australian Government’s most recent annual Closing the Gap report, released in 2020 (the 2021 CTG report has still not been released), concluded that in regard to major burdens of disease, “since 2006, there has been an improvement in Indigenous mortality rates from circulatory disease (heart disease, stroke and hypertension). However, this has coincided with an increase in cancer mortality rates, where the gap is widening.”
Overall, the 2020 report noted that improving life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was one of the positive trends recorded, noting that “In 2015–2017, life expectancy at birth was 71.6 years for Indigenous males (8.6 years less than non-Indigenous males) and 75.6 years for Indigenous females (7.8 years less than non-Indigenous females).
However, the target to close the comparison gap with life expectancy for the total Australian population was still rated “not on track”. “Over the period 2006 to 2018, there was an improvement of almost 10 per cent in Indigenous age-standardised mortality rates. However, non-Indigenous mortality rates improved at a similar rate, so the gap has not narrowed.”
Policy and government commitments
PHAA’s policy statement on health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander notes that “the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is poorer than that of other Australians. Due to the unique cultural, social and historical factors, specific solutions to address health issues are required. These should be defined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
PHAA campaigned on improvements to prevention and health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, led by ACCHOs.
The new Labor Australian Government’s election platform included commitments to close the gap in health and other issues. The Labor Party’s platform “acknowledges the profound impact colonisation and racism has on First Nations people. We recognise that First Nations people experience particular unacceptable disadvantage as a consequence of injustice both historical and continuing, compared to other Australians. Labor will work in partnership with First Nations people to achieve the change they aspire to, including Closing the Gap on First Nations people’s disadvantage.”
“Labor recognises the importance of community control and direct involvement of First Nations people in the planning and delivery of programs and services. Labor will invest in community controlled First Nations people organisations to deliver the services First Nations people want and need.”
“Labor is committed to closing the Gap and to the investments and programs that are required to deliver that change. Labor regards closing the gap in life expectancy, employment, justice, health and education outcomes between First Nations people and other Australians as a national priority. We believe self-determination is fundamental to being able to achieve this. In recognition of higher rates of social disadvantage and additional needs, Labor will work in partnership with First Nations people to: … (e) address the inadequacy of health services for First Nations people through a comprehensive approach that goes beyond health services to include cultural wellbeing and connection to the land, education, environmental health and employment and training opportunities.” (Platform, p.62)