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The Australian National University

Indigenous socioeconomic change 1971–2001: A historical perspective

Discussion Paper 266 / 2004


This paper examines trends across a number of socioeconomic outcomes for Indigenous Australians from the 1967 referendum to the present, using four Censuses of Population and Housing carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001. It reports on outcomes for Indigenous Australians, non-Indigenous Australians and the ratios between the two.

There are a number of difficulties involved in comparing censuses through time. These we label as practical, methodological, compositional and conceptual. Despite these difficulties, we are confident that our results are not only as consistent as any that have been produced to date in the analysis of Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes, but are also robust enough for broad conclusions to be drawn. Overall, we conclude that there has been steady, although not spectacular improvement in outcomes over time. These improvements are especially marked for education, although other areas have also seen some gains. This finding is somewhat at odds with the common perception of the ‘failure’ of Indigenous policy.

This paper also makes two additional contributions to empirical and methodological work in the field. Firstly, we give a comprehensive presentation of census questions over the period and detail the way in which we have attempted to construct a consistent series of data. Secondly, we outline a new technique for calculating medians when grouped data are all that is available. This technique may be particularly relevant when working with skewed distributions such as that found for the Indigenous population.

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