Aboriginal population much higher than records show

14 September 2006

Australia's indigenous population has always been much higher than official record keepers have acknowledged, a leading University of Sydney academic will argue today.

"Government policies, and the Australian Constitution, were drafted on the basis that Aboriginal numbers were low and decreasing. But, at Federation, Aboriginal people probably made up 4% to 5% of the Australian population", says Professor Richard Madden, Director of the University of Sydney's National Centre for Classification in Health.

"Statisticians are objective. But they reflect the social views of their times, and their own views. Statisticians were not only influenced by the prevailing views on Aborigines, but they had to implement the explicit constitutional provision to exclude aboriginal natives from counts of the Australian population - a clear signal that this section of the population was not considered important," Professor Madden says.

Up until 1930, the official statistical publications contained a wealth of material on Aboriginal people, and statisticians rightly expressed 'considerable doubt' about their estimates, Professor Madden says.

"The statisticians saw that best estimates involved using all available evidence. But estimates tended towards minimum figures, rather than average or maximum. In the Australian yearbooks of around 1920, Aboriginals were referred to as a 'remarkable and rapidly disappearing race'."

Understatement continued until recent years. "Given the lack of coherence and apparent biases in published estimates over time, a comprehensive restatement of population estimates from 1788 to the present is required," Professor Madden says.

"Improved and consistent population estimates will assist the development of a sound historical record. Aboriginal people decreased dramatically up to 1900, but they then numbered 4% to 5% of the population.

"They were never a 'disappearing' group. Let's set the records straight!"

Professor Madden is speaking between 1pm and 2pm today, Marjorie Oldfield Lecture Theatre, Edward Ford Building, Camperdown Campus, University of Sydney.

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100