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The Australian National University

The 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey: Findings and Future Prospects

Research Monograph 11 / 1996


The workshop 'Statistical needs for effective Indigenous policy: findings from the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey', on which this monograph is based, was convened by CAEPR for a variety of reasons. It has been over four years since in April 1992 an earlier workshop 'A National Survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations: Problems and Prospects' had been co-convened by CAEPR and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. That earlier workshop had raised a wide range of issues that workshop participants had felt needed to be considered when developing the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS). Subsequently, the NATSIS was undertaken i 1994, and in 1995 and 1996 a considerable amount of material from the Survey was published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). While CAEPR was aware of, and had participated in, an ABS-sponsored evaluation of the Survey (published in August 1996 as National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey: An Evaluation of the Survey, ABS cat. no. 4184.0), it appeared timely to us to reconvene a gathering of ABS staff, academics and bureaucrats involved in Indigenous affairs to assess Survey outputs from more academic and policy perspectives and to raise issues for consideration during the likely development of a future NATSIS.

The planning for the workshop was initiated after the change in Federal Government, but had not anticipated the fairly significant changes in policy direction that resulted from the Budget just a week before the workshop was convened. With a clearly articulated focus by the Howard Government on achieving improvements and outcomes for Indigenous Australians, the workshop provided a timely opportunity for a well-informed gathering of social science academics and policy practitioners to ask how any changes in the socioeconomic status of Indigenous Australians could be measured. This is a particularly pertinent point because, besides the five-yearly census, the 1994 NATSIS is the sole official source of comprehensive information about Indigenous Australians. Questions about the efficacy of this particular survey vehicle to generate information that informs policy formulation and measures the impacts of policies and programs across a range of important areas are vital.

The fundamental difference between the 1992 and 1996 workshops is that potential NATSIS outputs were only hypothetical at the earlier deliberations, whereas at the 1996 workshop we intentionally set out to assess the usefulness and validity of actual NATSIS output on a wide range of key policy issues that covered all the major components of the 1994 NATSIS. Such analysis was greatly facilitated by the availability in June 1996 of a Confidentialised Unit Record File (CURF) that was jointly purchased by a consortium at the ANU and heavily utilised in preparing a number of papers for the workshop. The workshop format replicated the approach taken at previous CAEPR-convened events: most papers were circulated beforehand, synoptic presentations were made in 15-20 minutes, discussion was maximised, and paper authors had a short period of a month to revise papers for publication.

The workshop's content was largely driven by the range of topics covered in the NATSIS: correlating fairly closely with NATSIS categories are chapters 3 and 12 which focus on different aspects of the family (demography and household and family composition); chapters 5 and 6 on formal and informal employment; chapter 7 on income; chapter 8 on education; chapter 9 on training; chapter 10 on housing; chapter 11 on health; chapter 13 on culture; and chapter 14 on law and justice. Other issues raised in the workshop (and now this monograph) include the policy and political development of the NATSIS (chapter 1); the range of NATSIS outputs in the context of all ABS statistics about Indigenous issues (chapter 2); the issue of mobility that was poorly addressed by the NATSIS (chapter 4); Torres Strait Islanders (chapter 15); uses of outputs at the regional level (chapter 16); the NATSIS evaluation (chapter 17); and a concluding summation of workshop issues (chapter 18).

ANU E Press