Census: Tell them you're Indigenous, says academic


I am urging all whitefella Territorians to enter themselves in the census as Indigenous. Why? Because this identity question inadvertently disadvantages Aboriginal Territorians. I will explain.
Between the 1981 and 2011 censuses the Indigenous population of Australia grew by 185 per cent.
Some of this growth was natural population increase but the majority of it was people changing their identity to Indigenous on the census.
In Australia’s capital cities almost all (ca 90%) Indigenous-identifiers are married to non-Indigenous persons. Their children will presumably be Indigenous.
So the proportion of Indigenous persons living in the capital cities will increase relative to the number of Indigenous persons in the Northern Territory, especially in Sydney and Brisbane and their environs. This census will accelerate that trend.
Population growth and settlement redistribution of this order challenges the construct of ‘Indigenous disadvantage’ as it is embedded in GST general purpose grants to States and Territories (and applied in similarly deterministic ways to most Indigenous-specific policy and programs).
For the Northern Territory, and to some extent Western Australia and Queensland, where the absolute population living in very remote communities with poor socio-economic conditions is growing but whose share of the national Indigenous population is rapidly diminishing, the downstream effects are large and increasing.
As a direct result, around $110m (in 2014 figures) has been lost annually from the GST-derived grants to the Northern Territory.
The Territory’s ability to address issues of Indigenous wellbeing is diminishing with every percentage point shift for the Indigenous-identifying population residing in urban Australia. (I don’t want to get into a debate about what the NT does with its general purpose grant; I initiated that in 2006 and it has been actively prosecuted by Barry Hansen ever since. And Territory governments of both persuasions have much to be ashamed about in this regard).
So that is why I am urging this action – effectively civil disobedience because you are not allowed to knowingly fill in the census form incorrectly.
My life partner’s family is from Tasmania. She is one-thirty-second part Indigenous. Hitherto she has not identified as Indigenous.  In Tasmania at the last census 20,000 people identified as Indigenous. But the Tasmanian Aboriginal organisations only recognise about 4,000 persons as Indigenous.
I am not arguing against being proud of your Indigenous ancestry, nor against people identifying as Indigenous. But these newly-identifying people are unlikely to be as disadvantaged as the Aboriginal people of the NT.
In fact this urban identification is mainly responsible for the improvements in the federal government’s “Closing the Gap” targets, which then takes pressure off that government to actually engage cooperatively rather than coercively with Aboriginal Territorians in helping them solve their problems.
So at this census my partner and our children will register as Indigenous. I will as well, even if I have no claim to that status (I am just a naturalised immigrant wog, born of Dutch parent in Indonesia, so not native to anywhere).
Hopefully if enough Territory whitefellas change their identification on the census form it will eventually force the Commonwealth to provide funding based on socio-economic disadvantage and not on identity.
Rolf Gerritsen PhD (ANU) is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Northern Institute.


  1. Professor Rolf Gerritsen makes an extremely interesting and valid point.
    The problem he highlights of people identifying as “indigenous” on the basis of a part of their ancestry, without regard for culture or language, must lead to a significant diversion of taxpayer funding away from those who are most in need and deserving of assistance.
    I am personally aware of a very significant example of this occurring in Central Australia, through my own involvement in an ill-fated taxpayer-funded project almost two decades ago.
    I hold those individuals who deliberately set out to exploit this weakness in our government-financed system of aid for Aboriginal people to be essentially corrupt in spirit, even if not in the letter of the law.
    I call them “bunkum blacks” as opposed to the genuine Aboriginal people who have maintained cultural and spiritual ties to the land.
    I am a descendent, in part, of the world-wide Irish Diaspora, a member of the so-called “Irish Empire”.
    There’s about 70 million such people around the world, predominantly in the USA and Australia. Imagine if we were to “trade in” on our ancestry for our “rights” as claimants of Irish territory or services – there’s no doubt what the Irish reaction would be to such preposterous claims.
    Likewise we need to “call out” those people in this country who shamelessly exploit their “Aboriginality” at the expense of those who truly remain the First Australians.

  2. Those who promote setting of specific “racial” rights, support rights based on linguistic and historical ties to a particular territory, on cultural and historical distinctiveness, from wider populations: This promotes ideas central to policies of divide and conquer.
    The legal historian John McCorquodale [Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report (1991)] reported: “Since the time of white settlement, governments have used no less than 67 classifications, descriptions or definitions to determine who is an Aboriginal person.”
    Prior to 1949, ALL Australians were British subjects, with same rights.
    The Commonwealth divided Australians using racial tags.
    Australia’s Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect 0n 26 January 1949 creating Australian citizenship.
    The Commonwealth continued to divide Australians by racial tag.
    Australians are either born Australian or naturalized.
    Why is Professor Rolf Gerritsen happy to play games with “racial” identities of Australians, when this did such damage?
    Australians at Federation, then again in the 1967 Constitutional amendment, shared the same purpose that NO legislation or regulation qualify our legal rights or legal responsibilities as Australian using racial identification as the measure.
    Encouragement of racial identifications, other than Australian by birth, assists Commonwealth racists to divide Australians into racial groups.
    Using racial identification they divide and qualify our Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities.
    The Commonwealth claims authority to divide our shared rights as Australians.
    The Commonwealth applied and applies changes to ban racial groups from buying or consuming alcohol, to orders of curfew, orders away from homes, away from land or sea, segregation orders, separation of families orders, with orders to force segregationist separation of families.
    The Commonwealth already knows well enough which individual Australians arrested for drunkeness, drugs, other civil and criminal charges, who imprison, impoverished, disabled, working part time, working full time, earning above average incomes, and their dependents.
    The Commonwealth needs no racial identification.
    Yet the Commonwealth seeks ability to argue xyz “racial” group can be labeled drunk, incapable of working, probably.
    The Commonwealth aims to divide and conquer, and to make wealthy those constructing and managing their “assistance” of those within these racial tag divisions.
    The Commonwealth is NOT serious about improving things.
    The Commonwealth knows where needs concentrate effort to raise incomes, to improve housing, to improve education, to improve employment opportunities, to improve health.
    Improving opportunity for all to participate, to accumulate assets, grow their wealth – this is what Australians really need from the Commonwealth.
    Australians need NO racial division.
    The Commonwealth constantly filters money so destructive of achieving planned results, plays sets of needy Australians against each other using racial tags to divide them.
    In Census 2017 Australians should tick NO racial tag box, OR tick ALL of them, we are all descended from “Adam and Eve” (Eve aka Lucy).

  3. I think it was Gary Foley, a prominent Aboriginal activist many years ago, who said something along the lines of: “There shouldn’t be a funding stream for Aboriginal people but money should be directed to the disadvantaged regardless of their heritage.”

  4. The issue could easily be avoided by removing ethnicity as a prerequisite to benefiting from certain Government policies.
    A far fairer and less easily scammed approach would be to implement policy and welfare type assistance based upon one’s individuals circumstances.
    A homeless or unemployed white person is no more or no less deserving of Government funded assistance than an Indigenous person.
    Certainly the rate of occurrence of a particular disadvantage may be higher in certain ethnicities, but it in itself is not the cause.
    By seeking to rectify the disadvantage through racial profiling it can be expected that many people outside of the ethnic group in need may go without and many people without need inside the ethnic group may undeservedly benefit.
    I have regularly spoken out against the CLP Governments Indigenous Employment Provisional Sum policy – as per all ethnic based approaches it is open to scamming and wasting of tax dollars. The NT government is currently, unwittingly (a regular occurrence for an unwitting government), incentivizing NT business to recruit Fly In Fly Out workers if they tick the “indigenous box” as the workforce the NT Government is pushing for simply does not exist. Certainly a disappointing outcome for the local unemployed.
    With the above in mind, I cannot help but agree with Rolf Gerritsen’s point of view. Not so much to ensure the NT gets its fair share, but rather to overburden the current system to such a point that ethnicity is no longer a measurement of requirement.
    In a shrinking, globalised world, it would be a far fairer place if we stopped legislating and measuring things on a persons colour, religion, gender etc.
    Case in point, Gay marriage would not exist as the current political headache – instead it would simply be marriage of two individuals.

  5. @ Paul Parker (Posted August 8, 2016 at 6:25 pm): This kind of debate quickly degenerates into a slanging match raising all kinds of prejudices to the surface, so it’s with some hesitation that I respond to this outburst. However, to claim that “Prior to 1949, ALL Australians were British subjects, with same rights” is absurdly wrong.
    For example, women didn’t have the right to vote in the first Federal elections, and their right to vote in the individual colonies / states varied from the 1890s to as late as the early 1920s.
    In South Australia, which included the Northern Territory at Federation, all indigenous people legally had the right to vote, but when control of the NT was passed to the Commonwealth in 1911 this right was lost.
    For that matter, all other NT residents lost constitutional equality with other Australians at the time thus giving the NT the unique distinction of being the only Western jurisdiction where its citizens were stripped of equal rights under law by acts of their own elected governments (SA and Commonwealth). This has provided the basis underpinning the quest for statehood for the NT ever since that time.
    Amongst the Commonwealth’s first laws was the Immigration Restriction Act, the infamous “White Australia Policy”, a law similar to South African legislation (need I say more); and in the NT the effect of this policy was to force most Chinese residents in the Top End (the dominant non-indigenous ethnic group at the time) to return to China, and to bring to an end the annual Macassan fishing expeditions to the Top End coastline and their interaction with local Aboriginal peoples that had been customary between the two peoples long before the first Europeans arrived.
    The Commonwealth progressively restored legal equality for mixed race and Indigenous people in the NT in the late 1950s to the early 1960s whereas in other states these people were treated quite differently.
    All Indigenous people in the NT regained the (non-compulsory) right to vote in 1962; and in 1964 the NT Legislative Council initiated the Social Welfare Ordinance (approved by the Commonwealth) to give equality under the law for all Indigenous persons. The same didn’t apply in some other states until the 1967 Referendum.
    The 1964 Social Welfare Ordinance provoked a great deal of concern amongst both European and Indigenous people in the NT, almost exclusively in relation to allowing Aboriginal people legal access to alcohol.
    A Select Committee of inquiry leading up to the Social Welfare Bill consulted with all major Aboriginal communities and reported that most DID NOT support it! To this day we’re still wrestling ineffectively with the legacy of this legislated “equality”.
    I think the fundamental mistake many people make about the principle of equality under the law is to conflate it with being “identical”. This is simply untrue but the unwillingness by many to recognise this fact forms a prominent part of the difficulty we face in dealing with some of the serious problems that afflict Indigenous people today.
    Equality under the law doesn’t preclude recognising differences that exist within culture and gender but clearly it must be carefully applied.

  6. Just a question for anyone who may know the answer (which is probably no one, as the Minister himself didn’t appear to have the answer on ABC this morning).
    I don’t trust any level of government and, as the Minister kept saying this morning, the information gathered is to be shared with all levels of government.
    Instead of putting my non-Indigenous name on the census, can I use my skin name instead?
    And can I use my homeland instead of my street address?
    I just don’t want some subcontinental backpacker from Barkly Regional Council selling my details to one of his telemarketing mates.
    Of course it’s not going to happen. There is no corruption in any level of government in the NT, is there, and that’s why we don’t need an independent anti-corruption body.

  7. “Indigenous” is such a spurious adjective when applied to people. Indigenous equals “totally derivative”.
    Kangaroos, emus, all the original flora and fauna are “indigenous” to Australia. But In Aboriginal terms, many local “full blood” people can be classified as “indigenous” to Australia if they wish, but anybody with a European, Asian, Maori father or other – usually paternal – connection is not indigenous.
    However, any person with genetic links to Australia in 1787 has the right to claim to be a First Australian. It’s as easy as that. They are the First Australians. The others (like me) are Australians.
    The sooner the First Australians establish their own Register of First Australians and maintain that archive themselves, the sooner they will have the sort of bargaining power that they need in this country that has never adequately come to terms with First Australian issues of land and identity.

  8. I have read all those comments. Most informative, especially Alex (who has a memory of elephantine proportions!). I want to reiterate my central point. This is about money. Per Gary Foley, while money is allocated on the basis of identity, equality loses.


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