Indigenous children
Both sides in the referendum have made claims about Indigenous people being counted in the census. Image by Grenville Turner/AAP PHOTOS

Were Aboriginal people counted in the census before 1967?

William Summers July 19, 2023

Aboriginal people were not counted in Australia’s censuses before 1967.


Mixed. Aboriginal people were generally counted as part of the census process before 1967 but excluded from the official population figures.

Supporters of the voice referendum’s ‘yes’ campaign claim Indigenous people were not counted in Australia’s census before 1967. 

‘No’ supporters claim the opposite, saying Indigenous people have always been counted.

The truth is somewhere in between, and largely depends on what is understood by the word ‘counted’.

Until the 1967 referendum, people deemed to be ‘full-blood’ Aboriginals were generally counted as part of the census process but excluded from official population tallies.

Aboriginal populations in remote areas were often estimated.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek
 Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek weighed into the Indigenous census debate in parliament. 

The debate about whether Aboriginal people were or were not excluded from early censuses has become an issue of contention between the two sides. 

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, who supports the proposed Indigenous voice to parliament, in May 2023 told parliament that when Australia’s constitution was written “Aboriginal people weren’t counted in the census or commonly allowed to vote”. 

Historian Geoffrey Blainey added fuel to the fire by claiming Indigenous people were “counted in every federal census since 1901, and counted moreover in the face of obstacles confronted by few other national statisticians” in a July 1 opinion piece in The Australian.

One day later, leading ‘no’ campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine referenced Mr Blainey’s article in a Facebook post saying that: “Aboriginals were counted in the census prior to and after Federation”.

Geoffrey Blainey
 Voice opponents have been sharing Geoffrey Blainey’s article on Indigenous people and the census. 

A detailed timeline of Indigenous peoples’ inclusion in the historical censuses, written by Indigenous history academic Professor Tim Rowse, is included as a chapter in a 2012 book called Genocide and Settler Society.

Prof Rowse explains in the book that in the 1901 census – the first after federation but before a Commonwealth statistical authority had been established – counting practices differed across the states (page 315).

After 1901, states standardised their approach to how Aboriginal people were counted in censuses, Prof Rowse wrote (page 315). 

Standardisation meant Aboriginal people were counted “if they were accessible to ordinary enumeration procedures”, he wrote. 

However, Section 127 of the constitution directed that “aboriginal natives shall not be counted” when “reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State”.

That meant all Commonwealth censuses before 1967 excluded ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal people from total population figures (for example the top two tables on Page 6 in Volume III – Part XIV Summary of the 1911 census on the ABS website).

Aboriginal children
 Part of the constitution that was repealed in 1967 stated “aboriginal natives shall not be counted”. 

Instead, the number of “Aboriginal natives” was estimated in a separate table (for example, page 145 of this 1908 yearbook published by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics).

The Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians published a report in 2012 that said until 1967, “only those ‘aboriginal natives’ living near white settlements were counted, and the main population tables included only those of half or less Aboriginal descent” (page 21).

Section 127 was deleted from the constitution at the 1967 referendum with the backing of more than 90 per cent of voters.

Prof Rowse says that because of Section 127, the Commonwealth government didn’t take Aboriginal people into account when making population-based decisions about how many House of Representative seats were allocated to each state. 

“So ‘Aboriginal natives’ were counted in the census but were not taken into account when certain decisions about the electoral system were made,” he told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“Up to and including the 1961 census, Aboriginal numbers in some remote regions were estimated because there was not an administration in the region capable of enumerating them.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics said authorities attempted to achieve “as full a coverage as possible” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the 1966 census. 

However, after the 1967 referendum, “a more concerted effort could be made within the new legal framework”, the ABS added.

University of Adelaide legal expert Professor Greg Taylor wrote in a 2016 academic paper that early politicians added Section 127 because of perceived difficulties with counting itinerant and remote Aboriginal people, as well as concerns about interstate disputes over population-based electoral and budget calculations (pages 224-25). 

 Politicians added a section constitution, excluding Aboriginal people from censuses, at federation. 

However, Prof Taylor wrote that not all politicians at that time supported the exclusion of Indigenous people from official population counts (pages 228-229).

Tasmanian state MP Harry Rooke is recorded as saying in 1897, for example, that he believed it to be “a very melancholy thing that the Aboriginal natives of a country should not be counted at all – the original owners of the soil” (page 229).

The Verdict

The claim that Aboriginal people were not counted in Australia’s census before 1967 is partly true and partly false, depending on what is meant by the word ‘counted’. 

Before the 1967 referendum, many but not all Aboriginal people were counted during the census process. However, Section 127 of the constitution, which was repealed in 1967, barred authorities from including Aboriginal people in the total population count. 

Instead, Commonwealth censuses before 1967 published the number of “Aboriginal natives” in a separate table.

Mixture – The claim includes accurate information but also significant errors or problems.

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