Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Indigenous peoples of Australia. They are not one group, but rather comprise hundreds of groups that have their own distinct set of languages, histories and cultural traditions (AIHW 2015). The health and welfare of Indigenous Australians living in the big cities are different to those living in the Torres Strait, which are different again to those living on the outskirts of Alice Springs or those living in remote communities.

Indigenous identification in data collections

The Australian Government defines Indigenous Australians as people who: are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent; identify as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin; and are accepted as such in the communities in which they live or have lived.

In most data collections, a person is considered to be Indigenous if they identified themselves, or were identified by another household member, as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. For a few data collections, information on acceptance of a person as being Indigenous by an Indigenous community may also be required.

Contextual factors

At the time of European colonisation, an estimated 320,000 Indigenous people lived in Australia, the majority living in the southeast, and in the Murray River valley and its tributaries (ABS 2002). Colonisation severely disrupted Aboriginal society and economy – epidemic disease caused an immediate loss of life, and the occupation of land by settlers and the restriction of Aboriginal people to ‘reserves’ disrupted their ability to support themselves. Over time, this combination of factors had such an impact that by the 1930s only an estimated 80,000 Indigenous people remained in Australia (Smith 1980).

Colonisation is recognised as having a fundamental impact on the disadvantage and poor health of Indigenous peoples worldwide, through social systems that maintain disparities (see, for example, Paradies 2016; Paradies & Cunningham 2012). Indigenous Australians experience disadvantage in almost all measures of health and welfare when compared with non-Indigenous Australians; this disparity has become known as ‘the Gap’.

Cultural factors – such as connection to Country and caring for Country, knowledge and beliefs, language, self-determination, family and kinship, and cultural expression – can be protective, and positively influence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health and wellbeing (Bourke et al. 2018). In contrast, racism or racial discrimination and the legacy of colonisation are associated with poorer physical and mental health (Paradies 2006; Priest et al. 2011; Paradies 2016).

Recent events

In early 2020, there were concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly in remote areas (Yashadhana et al. 2020). Together, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and the Australian Government co-designed a remote travel restrictions and quarantine regime to keep COVID-19 out of the most vulnerable Indigenous communities in remote Australia (see Indigenous COVID-19 advisory groups and response below). As of mid-July 2021, there were 165 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous Australians, representing approximately 0.5% of all confirmed cases in Australia (Health 2021).

As of 15 August 2021, there had been 293 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Indigenous Australians since the start of the pandemic. This included 145 confirmed cases since the beginning of 2021 (1.3% of all cases in the period), and 148 in 2020 (0.5%) (Health 2021).

The Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted inequities in health and justice outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. These events have also drawn attention to disparities in living conditions—including education, employment and housing—that are related to health and justice outcomes (Marmot et al. 2008; PwC 2017; AIHW & NIAA 2020).

The year 2020 also saw the signing of a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, an agreement between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. Its aim is to work together to ‘overcome the inequality experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and achieve life outcomes equal to all Australians’ (NIAA 2020b). See Closing the Gap below for further details.

Indigenous COVID-19 advisory groups and response

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), in partnership with the Australian Government, has been critical in driving the response to COVID-19 for Indigenous Australians. NACCHO is the national leadership body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in Australia. It provides advice and guidance to the Australian Government on policy and budget matters and advocates for community-developed solutions that contribute to the quality of life and improved health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In March 2020, the Australian Government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 (the Taskforce), co-chaired by NACCHO and the Department of Health. The Taskforce provides culturally appropriate advice to the Department of Health about health issues related to COVID-19, and developed the Management Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. This plan focuses on culturally appropriate testing and care for Indigenous Australians. It supports health care professionals working with Indigenous Australian communities and peoples to develop and implement local operational plans.

After consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector (through the Taskforce) and with state and territory governments, in March 2021, the Australian Government released the COVID-19 Vaccination Program—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Implementation Plan. This plan builds on Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccine National Rollout Strategy (released 7 January 2021) and complements the Management Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. Under it, vaccines will be administered to Indigenous Australians at Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, state and territory government-run Aboriginal Medical Services and other providers.

The First Nations Peoples Strategic Advisory Group (FNPSAG) was set up to support the Disability Royal Commission in its work by providing leadership and guidance on matters specific to Indigenous Australians with disability. Regarding COVID-19, the FNPSAG released a Statement of Concern endorsed by over 70 disability organisations in March 2020 and an issues paper on emergency planning and response in April 2020. The FNPSAG note in their Statement of Concern that Indigenous Australians with disability are not only disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in general (because they have an increased risk of infection and death), they are also disproportionally affected by the associated social restrictions imposed on them and the resulting breaks in the continuity of essential services (Disability Royal Commission 2020a, 2020b).

Population size and location

In 2016, an estimated 798,400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia, representing 3.3% of the total Australian population (ABS 2019c).

Among the Indigenous Australian population in 2016:

  • 91% identified as being of Aboriginal origin (an estimated 727,500 people)
  • 4.8% identified as being of Torres Strait Islander origin (an estimated 38,700 people)
  • 4.0% were of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin (an estimated 32,200 people) (ABS 2018a).

Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) projections, the number of Indigenous Australians in 2021 was estimated to be 881,600. The Indigenous Australian population is projected to reach about 1.1 million people by 2031 (ABS 2019b).

About Indigenous populations estimates

The ABS produces Estimated Resident Populations (ERPs) for Indigenous Australians every 5 years (the Census years), with the latest available relating to 2016. The ABS also produces ‘backcast estimates’ for years before the Census year and ‘projections’ for future years, based on the latest Census year estimates along with assumptions about births, deaths and migration (see Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for details).

This snapshot provides ERP data for 2016, and ABS 2016 Census-based projections (Series B) for 2021 data where available.

Age distribution

The Indigenous population has a relatively young age structure. In 2016, the median age was 23.0 years, compared with 37.8 for non-Indigenous Australians (ABS 2018a).

In 2021, a projected 32% of Indigenous Australians are aged under 15 (compared with 18% of non-Indigenous Australians), and only 5.4% of Indigenous Australians are aged 65 and over (compared with 17% of non-Indigenous Australians) (Figure 1).
 

This figure shows the age-structure of the population by Indigenous status in 2016. The proportions of the Indigenous population who were aged 0–4, 5–9, 10–14, 15–19, 20–24 and 25–29 were higher than the corresponding proportions for the non-Indigenous population. For example, 11.8% of the Indigenous population were aged 0–4 compared with 6.3% of the non-Indigenous population. In contrast, people in the age groups from 30–34 to 85 and over, made up higher proportions of the non-Indigenous population than the Indigenous population. For example, 2.1% of non-Indigenous Australians were aged 85 and over, compared with 0.2% of Indigenous Australians.

Geographic distribution

Indigenous Australians live in all parts of the nation, from cities to remote tropical and desert areas. Indigenous Australians are more likely to live in urban and regional areas than remote areas, though the proportion of the total population who are Indigenous is generally higher in more remote areas.

Based on projections for 2021, among Indigenous Australians:

  • 38% (337,400) live in Major cities
  • 44% (389,200) live in Inner and outer regional areas
  • 18% (154,900) live in Remote and very remote areas combined (Figure 2; ABS 2019c).

The proportion of the total population who were Indigenous increased with remoteness, from 1.8% in Major cities, to 32% in Remote and very remote areas.

In 2021, an estimated 33% of Indigenous Australians (292,100 people) live in New South Wales and 28% (246,300 people) in Queensland (Figure 2).

The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Indigenous residents among its population – an estimated 31% (79,600 people) in 2021 (Figure 2).
 

This figure shows the distribution of the Indigenous population in 2016 by remoteness area, as well as by Indigenous Regions. Data by both geographic classifications indicate that the Indigenous population is more heavily concentrated along the eastern seaboard than other areas of Australia. Across remoteness area, the areas where the largest numbers of Indigenous Australians lived were Major cities of NSW (where 123,099 Indigenous Australians lived) and Inner regional NSW (where 91,518 Indigenous Australians lived). Across Indigenous regions, the areas with the largest numbers of Indigenous Australians were NSW Central and North Coast (85,169 Indigenous Australians), Brisbane (84,454) and Sydney –Wollongong (81,685).

Looking at smaller geographies, the majority of Indigenous Australians live on (or near to) the East coast of Australia (Figure 3).
 

This interactive map shows that, in 2016, the majority of Indigenous Australians live on (or near to) the East coast of Australia. The Indigenous region with the most Indigenous Australians is NSW Central and North Coast, with a population of 85,169 Indigenous Australians.

Language and culture

Indigenous communities pass on knowledge, tradition, ceremony and culture from one generation to the next through language, performance, protection of significant sites, storytelling and the teachings of Elders. Cultural factors such as connection to community, land and spirituality are important for the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians (Bourke et al. 2018).

In the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, 1 in 10 (9.8%) Indigenous Australians reported that they spoke an Indigenous language at home, with over 150 different Indigenous languages being spoken (ABS 2019a). The most common Indigenous language spoken at home was Kriol (11%), followed by Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole) (9.4%) and Djambarrpuyngu (6.7%) (ABS 2019a).

Data from the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey show that Indigenous Australians have strong connections to their family, community and culture.

Figure 4 shows that in 2018–19, among Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over:

  • 74% (357,400 people) recognised an area as a homeland/traditional country – this was 91% in remote areas compared with 71% in non-remote areas.
  • 66% (314,200 people) identified with a tribal group, language, clan, mission or regional group – this was 86% in remote areas compared with 61% in non-remote areas.
  • 24% (130,500 people) lived on their homeland – this was 43% in remote areas compared with 20% in non-remote areas (ABS 2019b).
     

The figure show that, across all measures, the proportion of Indigenous Australians who are connected to their culture is higher in remote areas.

Closing the Gap

Closing the Gap is a government framework aiming to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which was first agreed to in 2008. With four of the seven targets expiring unmet, a new approach was needed (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

In 2020, there was a marked shift in the approach to the Closing the Gap framework, with the signing of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. For the first time, this was developed in genuine partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (AIHW & NIAA 2020). The agreement is available at closingthegap.gov.au.

National Agreement on Closing the Gap targets, 2020

 

Target

1

Close the Gap in life expectancy within a generation, by 2031.

2

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies with a healthy birthweight to 91 per cent.

3

By 2025, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in Year Before Fulltime Schooling (YBFS) early childhood education to 95 per cent.

4

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55 per cent.

5

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20–24) attaining year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96 per cent.

6

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70 per cent.

7

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent.

8

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–64 who are employed to 62 per cent.

9

By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in appropriately sized (not overcrowded) housing to 88 per cent.

10

By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration by at least 15 per cent.

11

By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10–17 years) in detention by 30 per cent.

12

By 2031, reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent.

13

By 2031, the rate of all forms of family violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children is reduced at least by 50%, as progress towards zero.

14

Significant and sustained reduction in suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards zero.

15

By 2030, a 15 per cent increase in Australia’s landmass subject to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests.

By 2030, a 15 per cent increase in areas covered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s legal rights or interests in the sea.

16

By 2031, there is a sustained increase in number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken.

17

By 2026, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have equal levels of digital inclusion.

Source: NIAA 2020a.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on Indigenous Australians, see:

Visit Indigenous Australians for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2002. Year book, Australia, 2002. ABS cat. no. 1301.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018a. Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2016. ABS cat. no. 3238.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018b. Population projections, Australia, 2017 (base)—2066. ABS cat. no. 3222.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019a. Census of Population and Housing: characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2016. ABS cat. no. 2076.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019b. Cultural Identification. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey TableBuilder, accessed 7 April 2021.

ABS 2019c. Estimates and projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006 to 2031. ABS cat. no. 3238.0. Canberra: ABS.

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