The link below is to an article that looks at 10 ways to find an ancestor’s death information.
Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This article is part of our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
The release of 2016 Census data provides a good opportunity to reflect on the future growth of Australian cities. And what better example of the future to use than Tokyo?
Frequently the subject of futuristic visions, the city went through one of the world’s most rapid post-war population growth periods. The Greater Tokyo area has a population of 38 million – almost 60% more than the population of Australia. Yet Tokyo remains one of the world’s most liveable metropolises.
Lesson 1: manage urban growing pains
Tokyo was devastated at the end of the second world war. The city experienced rapid rebuilding and growth. The population of the central Tokyo prefecture, which is home to 13.5 million people, increased from 3.5 million in 1945 to 11.6 million in 1975.
This 30-year growth spurt happened at a rate almost twice that predicted for Greater Melbourne, for example, from 4.4 million today to 8 million by 2050.
Tokyo’s rapid growth had a number of negative impacts. These included very significant environmental pollution. The basic approach during this period was to grow first and clean up later.
The consequence for Tokyo was disorganised patterns of urban development – sprawl. The answer involved tighter planning controls and land re-adjustment programs to improve environmental conditions and ensure infrastructure was effective.
The lesson here for Australian cities is that, in the face of rapid population growth, better forward planning is the only way to avoid or minimise negative side effects.
Lesson 2: Introduce metropolitan governance
A critical factor in Tokyo’s liveability is the role of metropolitan governance in ensuring good planning and co-ordination.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was established in 1943. In contrast, for Australian cities a metropolitan level of co-ordination is the exception rather than the rule. With Greater Melbourne, for example, the Victorian Planning Authority plays an important role but lacks oversight from local political representatives. The governor and the assembly members in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, on the other hand, are accountable to the electorate.
The Tokyo government also has considerable political autonomy since it generates 70% of its revenue from local taxation. In 2014, it had a budget of ¥13 trillion (A$151 billion) – on a par with Sweden’s. This makes the governor of Tokyo one of the most powerful politicians in Japan, second only to the prime minister.
The Tokyo government’s approach has always involved strong interventionist policy and considerable emphasis on infrastructure development, with a reliance on public-private partnerships to get results.
Lesson 3: Commit early to world-class public transport
Public-private partnerships to develop metropolitan railways has been a standard approach in Japanese cities for most of the 20th century and continues to underpin Tokyo’s success as a global city. For example, the Mitsubishi Corporation played an instrumental role in developing the Marunouchi district around Tokyo Station. The latter was built in 1914 and connected intercity stations in a loop decades before other cities.
These public-private interventions have cemented Tokyo’s status as a transit-oriented metropolis. The city has by far the highest public transport usage in the world.
Compared to other major cities like Seoul, London, New York and Beijing, Tokyoites rely far more heavily on public transport, cycling or walking to get around. In Tokyo prefecture, rail accounts for 48% of trips, bus 3%, cycling 14% and walking 23%. Private car use accounts for only 12% of trips.
A continuous investment in rail networks above and below ground would ensure Australian cities can better accommodate predicted population growth. A fascinating map designed by Adam Mattinson shows what a subway system for Melbourne could look like based on the Tokyo model. To achieve this may require that the tram system moves underground – almost certainly a pipe dream.
Lesson 4: Decarbonise the economy as it grows
Tokyo was lucky to be able to grow rapidly in an era when climate change was not the recognised problem that it is today.
The challenge for Australian cities will be to grow their economies while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to match the per capita levels for Tokyo, and then to cut them much further. The World Bank calculated that in 2006, per-capita emissions for Sydney were 20.3 tonnes of CO2, compared to 4.89 tonnes for Tokyo.
Tokyo is also seeking to cut its emissions by 30% by 2030 compared to 2000. In Australia, Plan Melbourne, for example, aims to achieve a target of net zero emissions by 2050 even while the population continues to grow.
While investments in low-carbon public transport will be central to meeting this target, it is also essential to pursue ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy targets.
Tokyo is aiming for a 38% drop in energy consumption and a rise in renewable energy from 8.7% in 2014 to 30% of electricity generation in 2030. The good news is that Plan Melbourne sets a target for renewables of 40% of electricity generation by 2025.
Lesson 5: Prepare to age with dignity
Along with declining emissions intensity, Tokyo’s population is likely to start shrinking. The population of central Tokyo is expected to rise from 13.5 million today and peak in 2020 before declining to 7.1 million by 2100. The population of Greater Tokyo is expected to peak around 38.5 million about the same time.
The population of Australian cities will plateau at some point, as in Tokyo. The next lesson would be how to deal with an ageing demographic and potential population decline.
As recently argued based on the census, a result of declining home ownership is the likelihood of couples deferring the decision to have children. A knock-on effect could therefore be a more rapidly ageing Australian population.
The Tokyo of today is certainly no utopia, due to its vulnerability to earthquakes and other natural disasters, high house prices, homelessness, rising inequality, a lack of multiculturalism and a proportion of housing as rental accommodation that dwarfs Australia’s (47.9% compared to 30.9%).
Yet the largest settlement on the planet offers useful lessons – historical, present and future – that can guide the urban policies of other countries.
You can read other articles in the Is Australia Full? series here.
Brendan F.D. Barrett, Senior Lecturer, Program Manager, Masters on International Urban and Environmental Management, RMIT University and Marco Amati, Associate Professor of International Planning, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University
Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This is the second article in our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
Population change has long been a topic of public debate in Australia, periodically escalating into controversy.
It is inextricably linked to debates about immigration levels, labour force needs, capital city congestion and housing costs, refugee intakes, economic growth in country areas and northern Australia, the “big versus smaller” Australia debate, and environmental pressures.
Views about the rate of population growth in Australia are numerous and mixed. At one end of the spectrum are those who are vehemently opposed to further population increases; at the other end are supporters of substantially higher population growth and a “very big” Australia.
Logically, population debates usually quote Australia’s demographic statistics. But there is value in comparing our population growth in the international context.
Average growth rates compared globally
Although growth rates have fluctuated considerably from year to year, statistics just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that Australia’s population grew by 3.75 million between 2006 and 2016. This indicates an average annual growth rate of 1.7%.
As the chart below shows, this was quite high compared to other countries and global regions. Over the decade, other English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the US all experienced growth rates lower than Australia’s. The world’s more developed countries in aggregate grew by an annual average of 0.3%.
The world’s population as a whole increased by an average of 1.2% per year.
According to the UN Population Division, Australia ranked 90th out of 233 countries in terms of population growth rate over the decade. The countries or territories with higher growth rates were mostly less developed countries, particularly in Africa, and the oil-rich Gulf states. The only developed countries with faster rates of growth were Singapore, Luxembourg and Israel.
Why Australia’s population growth rate is higher
There are two main reasons for Australia’s high growth.
Net overseas migration (immigration minus emigration) is one major factor. It has been generating a little over half (56%) of population growth in recent years.
Demand for immigration – to settle permanently, work in Australia, or study here for a few years – is high, and there are many opportunities for people to move to Australia. In the 2015-16 financial year about 190,000 visas were granted to migrants and 19,000 for humanitarian and refugee entry. Temporary migrants included 311,000 student visas, 215,000 working holidaymaker visas and 86,000 temporary work (skilled) 457 visas.
Over the last five years, ABS figures show that immigration has averaged about 480,000 per year and emigration about 280,000. This puts annual net overseas migration at around 200,000.
This is high in international terms. UN Population Division data for the 2010-15 period reveals Australia had the 17th-highest rate of net overseas migration of any country.
But it is not just overseas migration driving Australia’s population growth. High natural increase (the number of births minus the number of deaths) also makes a substantial contribution. Natural increase has been responsible for a little under half (44%) of population growth in recent years (about 157,000 per year).
This combination of an extended history of net overseas migration gains, a long baby boom and a healthy fertility rate has resulted in Australia being less advanced in the population ageing transition than many other developed countries.
In particular, relatively large numbers of people are in the peak childbearing ages. This means that even if migration fell immediately to zero the population would still increase. Demographers call this age structure effect “population momentum”.
Whether Australia’s population is growing too fast
While Australia’s population growth rate is high in a global context, this does not necessarily mean its population is growing too fast. It all depends on your point of view.
It is important to stress that the overall population growth rate is just one aspect of Australia’s demography. A more comprehensive debate about the nation’s demographic trajectory should consider a broad range of issues, such as:
population age structure (the numbers of people in different age groups);
the health and wellbeing of a rapidly growing population at the highest ages;
population distribution across the country;
economic growth and development;
the contributions of temporary workers and overseas students;
appropriate infrastructure for the needs of the population; and
environmental management and per-capita carbon emissions.
Progress on issues such as healthy ageing, economic development,and environmental management depend on appropriate strategies to deal with these challenges. Total population numbers will often be relevant to the discussion, but they are only part of the equation.
The 2016 Census has revealed an increase in the number of children with disability, up nearly 40,000 since 2011. One explanation is that the census now counts disability differently, which is more in line with the way many children and families view disability.
But other children continue to miss out on support because they do not name their needs as “disability”. And services don’t yet have adequate funding for even the revealed number of children, so other children who require assistance are left out.
A census that counts people who identify as having a disability, as well as those who need support, could help resolve these problems.
Children and young people who need support related to disability has risen from 2% to 2.6% of children – or 38,309 more children than in 2011. The most striking change is boys with disability aged 5-14 years, who have increased to 4.4% of all boys their age. These rates are even higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children – 7.4% of boys aged 5-14 years and 4.4% of all children and young people aged 0-19 years.
The census counts disability as “has need for assistance”, which it defines as “profound or severe core activity limitation”. The definition was introduced in the 2006 Census to be consistent with international measures and other national surveys, which focus on counting support needs. Before 2006, disability was not counted at all. The continued increase each census since 2006 is probably due to more Australians identifying with the definition or seeing the benefit of identifying as disabled, now that policies to support disability are changing.
Knowing who the definition covers is important. The census count of “need for assistance” is good to inform government planning about high levels of support some people need to participate equally in our communities. Estimating the number of people likely to need a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) package is a current priority. This census counted 562,629 people aged under 65 years – over 100,000 more than the NDIS planning estimates.
Equally important for children is planning access and support in school, playgrounds and other places where children participate in their families and communities. The higher 2016 Census count shows these plans need to expand.
Who isn’t counted?
The census question only counts people with high needs, not all people with disability. Unfortunately, the question is not complemented with an identity question about whether you have a disability. This means people with disability who do not need assistance – for example, some people who are blind – are not counted. The World Health Organisation estimates the larger total would be closer to 15% of all Australians, rather than the 5.1% measured in this census.
This gap means another 10% of Australians are not officially counted, yet they too face barriers to participation, including access and attitudes.
Disability advocates consistently express concern that by not asking Australians directly about their disability or impairment, the census fails to count the population of people with disability accurately – it only captures people who need assistance.
Fixing this gap is important for Australia’s obligations to all Australians under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The NDIS relies on better access to social and economic life for all people with disability, including people not eligible for NDIS packages.
Not gathering information about this 10% of our population is a missed opportunity. It means we simply don’t know how many people with disability may benefit from, and contribute to, more accessible communities and new social and economic opportunities. For children, this is critical to having an inclusive community as a foundation.
Views about disability
Counting disability is complicated because it’s rarely the way children see themselves. Rather, they speak about what supports them to feel a sense of belonging in their local school and community and what helps them build real friendships and relationships. They also talk about the barriers that make belonging difficult, like loneliness, ill-treatment and lack of support.
Children and young people with disability are often positioned as passive recipients needing assistance through family, friends and services. Research with children and young people themselves, however, shows they want to be recognised for their active contribution to their families and wider networks. Their positive identity is more important to them than their support needs.
One of the interesting changes since the introduction of the NDIS is that families and service providers are now also using the “need for assistance” definition of disability, which is consistent with the inclusive vision from the UN Convention. Their advocacy with this definition means support for young children in Australia has expanded already even though the NDIS is still growing.
Children receiving disability support are now more likely to use it while they are with other children in their community, rather than in separate services. Families’ capacity to demand these inclusive services recognises the rights of their children to get the support they need to enjoy their childhood and have the same options as their peers in the future. These trends are also consistent with the insurance approach of the NDIS: that assistance now is an investment for later.
Funding and support
The increase in the numbers of children and young people with disability may reflect families’ optimism about having their children’s needs met in the new NDIS world. It certainly promises to replace long waiting lists and capped places of previous systems. The census numbers reinforce the higher number of children in the NDIS than expected, which is upsetting NDIS estimates. The NDIS has detailed data about people using the scheme. This will not resolve the question about the total number of people with disabilities though. People receiving NDIS packages are those likely to already be those identified in census data as needing support.
Data collection in schools has also recently improved with the introduction of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for school students with disability. Most children and young people participate in the school system, so these data will inform understanding about adjustments to support students in their education.
Bringing these large data sets together means we can understand the types of supports families need, and where there are service gaps between schools and the NDIS.
Lessons from data need to be discussed alongside the expectations and experiences of children, young people and families to ensure they’re getting the support they need. This will help children enjoy the opportunities of childhood, rather than the current disproportionate but necessary focus on dismantling barriers to belonging.
The great Australia dream of owning your own home is still alive despite the various problems plaguing housing affordability, new Census data shows. Even though the overall home ownership trend remains strong, it’s masking other issues.
The latest 2016 Census data assesses what the national home ownership and rental rates are and how these vary location. It also gives us a picture of mortgage and rental costs.
Comparing home ownership rates since the 2011 Census, there’s a slow but steady decline in home ownership rates overall – down by 2.9% from 64.9% of all Australian households in 2006, to 62.0% in 2016. However, 7.4% of households did not state their housing tenure in the 2016 Census. This accounts for some of the variation in reported rates of home ownership decline.
This contraction is nowhere of the scale of equivalent falls in home ownership in the US and UK and New Zealand over the same period.
What’s more interesting than the overall trend, is the greater decline in outright home ownership, involving no mortgage debt, from 31.0% to 29.6% between 2011 and 2016. There’s also a lesser decline in home owners who are purchasing with mortgage debt 33.3% in 2011 compared with 32.4% in 2016.
The opportunity households now have to borrow against their mortgage loans for spending undoubtedly accounts for some of this change. Also contributing to this is home purchasers are less likely to reach retirement age with no remaining mortgage debt, in the same numbers as previous eras.
Another aspect of housing affordability is masked by these numbers – the wide variation in being able to purchase a home according to age and income. Recent evidence indicates would-be-home-owners try various means including very high mortgage debt and moving to outer urban locations away from employment and into smaller dwellings, to be able to buy a house. Some even delay having kids.
Census figures show that for people wanting to purchase a home, a change in state or city location may be an option. According to the data Darwin was the most expensive city to buy in, whereas Hobart was the cheapest for home purchasers.
For households across the income spectrum, 7.2% of purchasers are paying more than 30% of their income on mortgage costs, the data shows. This figure is likely to be far higher among the lowest income (40% of households) for whom such costs place them in housing poverty.
Given the national obsession with investment in private rental, it’s no surprise that the proportion of all Australian households now renting has also increased. Census 2016 results show the private rental sector grew in size, from 20.2% in 2006, to 22.0% in 2011 and to 23.6% in 2016.
In 2016 a total of 2,089,633 Australian households rented privately, either from real estate agents or private landlords.
The growth of the private rental sector largely reflects the high costs of home purchase. Many households who rent have a relative lack of security and control over rental increases.
For those unable to pay rent in the private market, social housing is likely to provide little relief. Census data shows overall rates of social housing declining from 4.7% in 2006 to 4.0% in 2016. In this context, the growth in rates of homelessness in the last decade is perhaps not surprising.
For Indigenous Australians, the housing picture is different. Census 2016 data show among households in which at least one resident is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, 12.2% are outright owners, 25.9% are purchaser owners, 32.4% are renting privately. Around a fifth of households, 21.5%, live in social housing, reflecting targeted social housing programs in metropolitan, rural and regional areas.
Overall, home ownership has not changed as dramatically in the last decade, as some would have anticipated. However, it’s likely with the labour market being what it is and the adaptations people are making to try and buy a home, there may be longer-term problems to be seen in future.
Excessive household debt, polarisation of cities into low and high income earning areas and deepening family housing constraints indicate these Census figures likely mask bigger problems. This may translate over time into a more costly social problem, as increasing proportions of households require housing assistance of some form. Australian society could become even more divided on the basis of housing wealth and opportunity, if these trends continue, as we expect they will.
Wendy Stone, Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology; Margaret Reynolds, Researcher, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology, and Terry Burke, Professor of Housing Studies, Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a complicated history with the Australian census. Until the 1967 referendum, the question about Indigenous status was used mainly to exclude the Indigenous population from official population statistics, as required by the Constitution at that time.
Since the 1971 Census, however, the question has been used to understand Indigenous demographic and socioeconomic outcomes. This includes observing how Indigenous peoples’ situations are changing through time, and comparing them to the non-Indigenous population.
Indigenous population estimates matter for policymaking. For example, the Commonwealth Grants Commission uses estimates of the Indigenous population to advise on GST revenue allocation to the states and territories. And many Closing the Gap targets are monitored in full or in part using census data.
At the same time, many Indigenous communities and organisations argue that the way data are collected and distributed takes power out of their hands, and puts them at a disadvantage.
So, what did we learn from the most recent release of 2016 Census data?
A rapidly growing population
First, the Indigenous population is growing – rapidly. In data released on Tuesday, it was estimated there are 786,689 Australians who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. This is a 17.4% increase from 2011.
This estimate of the total Indigenous population is based on the 2016 Census, but also takes into account people who were missed in the count. Indigenous Australians are now estimated to represent 3.3% of the total Australian population, up from 3% in 2011.
Setting aside for the moment those who were missed, 649,171 people identified themselves as being “of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin” in the 2016 Census. This is up 18.4% from 2011.
There are several reasons for the rapidly growing visibility of Indigenous Australians in our population statistics.
The first is the natural increase of the Indigenous population. On average, Indigenous Australians have a slightly higher number of children than non-Indigenous Australians.
In addition, the children resulting from relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians often identify as Indigenous, accelerating the growth of the Indigenous population. However, even after taking these factors into account, the Indigenous population was projected to reach no more than 746,815 by 2016 – around 40,000 people fewer than the latest census-based estimate.
While we won’t know how accurate the assumptions underlying these projections were for some time, the probable explanation for the “extra” 40,000 Indigenous people is that some individuals who chose not to identify as Indigenous in 2011 decided to identify as Indigenous in 2016.
The change in propensity to identify as Indigenous makes comparisons over time difficult. Any change in socioeconomic outcomes is likely to partly result from changing life-chances for Indigenous Australians, but is also likely to be partly attributable to the change in the group of people who are classified part of the Indigenous population.
However, because the group of newly identifying Indigenous people is around 5% of the Indigenous population, any change in socioeconomic indicator that is greater than 5% can at least be partly attributed to a change in the circumstances of the families who identified as Indigenous in 2011.
Regardless of what factors drove Indigenous population growth in the 2016 Census, it is clear that population growth was not evenly distributed.
As the map below of the change in census counts between 2011 and 2016 shows, the Indigenous population increased by the greatest amount in Brisbane, on the New South Wales central and north coast, and Sydney – Wollongong. Almost half (49%) of the growth of the Indigenous population occurred in just these three regions.
Conversely, the Indigenous population of the East Kimberley, Alice Springs, and several other remote regions appeared to decline slightly.
These initial figures should be interpreted cautiously. The proportion of records for whom we do not have an answer to the Indigenous status question on the census increased by about one-third between censuses. Nevertheless, it is clear that Indigenous population growth remains concentrated in NSW and Queensland.
The changing distribution of the Indigenous population can be better understood through a cartogram, as in the figure below. Each circle represents a location defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as an “Indigenous Area”. The circles representing these locations have been sized so that their areas are proportionate to their Indigenous population count in 2011.
They have been moved on the map so they do not overlap, but under the constraint that they move as little as possible, that they remain within their state boundaries (except for the ACT), and that they retain their relative position next to each other as much as possible.
We have also added a line around the greater capital city areas to help readers identify them. Each area has been coloured in a manner that indicates the change in population between 2011 and 2016.
What the cartogram shows very clearly is that in 2011, the Indigenous population was already highly concentrated in coastal NSW and Queensland. The cartogram suggests the Indigenous population has grown substantially everywhere in the greater Brisbane/Gold Coast region, in much of the NSW central and north coast, and around the fringes of Greater Sydney and Greater Melbourne.
The places where the Indigenous population declined tend to be locations that had a low population in 2011 and that are located in remote parts of Australia. However, there are plenty of exceptions to both of these general patterns.
In 2016, the number of people speaking an Australian Indigenous language at home increased by a small amount – to 63,754 persons from 60,550 in 2011.
This was an absolute increase. But it represents a decline in the proportion speaking an Australian Indigenous language – from 11.8% in 2011 to 10.5% in 2016.
This proportionate decline may result from Indigenous population growth being concentrated in areas where Indigenous languages are less commonly spoken. So, it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that these results suggest language loss.
Indigenous people are getting into the education system earlier and staying for longer. This is likely to lead to improved socioeconomic outcomes in future.
Early childhood education rates have increased. The percentage of three-to-five-year-olds who aren’t already at primary school that were attending preschool is up from 43.5% in 2011 to 48.5% in 2016.
At the secondary school level, 59.7% of Indigenous people aged 15-18 were attending school. This is up substantially from 51.2% in 2011.
Increased school attendance has flowed through to growth in the percentage of Indigenous people aged 15 or more who have completed year 12. This rose to 34.6% in 2016 from 28% in 2011.
Finally, the proportion of Indigenous 15-24-year-olds undertaking tertiary education appears also to have grown. In 2016, 16.2% of this cohort who were not at secondary school were studying for a tertiary qualification. This is up from 14.1% in 2011.
Significantly, this growth has been driven by increased university attendance (8.5% in 2016, up from 5.8% in 2011). Attendance at technical or further educational institutions has actually been falling (7.7% in 2016, down from 8.4% in 2011). This shift from technical education to university education is suggestive of the continued growth of an Indigenous middle class.
Indigenous people are also earning more on average in 2016 than 2011.
Real median weekly personal pre-tax income is up from A$397 in 2011 to A$441 in 2016. Although incomes grew generally between censuses, the growth in incomes for Indigenous people outpaced that of the rest of the population. Nevertheless, on average, Indigenous people still receive a personal income that is only two-thirds that of the non-Indigenous population.
Similar trends were evident for household income: Indigenous household incomes are increasing more rapidly than non-Indigenous household incomes.
Similarly, home ownership rates among households with at least one Indigenous resident have increased slightly, from 37.4% to 39.6%.
Households with a resident who identifies as Indigenous are also slightly less likely to be overcrowded than in the past. The proportion of households in a house that doesn’t meet the international standard for overcrowding from 11.8% to 10.4%.
At the same time, overcrowding by the same measure among non-Indigenous households has risen between 2011 and 2016, from 3.2% to 3.6%.
The 2016 Census has mostly delivered a good news story in terms of Indigenous outcomes. But the extent to which these positive results indicate that life is getting better for Indigenous families remains unclear.
At least some of these apparent improvements are likely to be the result of people of relatively high socioeconomic status identifying as Indigenous for the first time.
In addition, there were a number of census records for which we know nothing about whether the person is Indigenous – around 6% of the total count. This is because these people didn’t fill out any census form, or they didn’t answer the Indigenous status question. Either way, we need to keep this uncertainty in mind when interpreting findings.
And while we have generally presented national figures here, socioeconomic outcomes for Indigenous people vary dramatically across Australia. Overall improvements, while welcome, may well mask less positive outcomes in specific regions.
Nicholas Biddle, Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University and Francis Markham, Research Fellow, College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University
Every five years the census asks Australians: “What is your religion?”. Ten tick-box responses are provided, along with the option to write in some other response.
In 2016 Census, the first box was for “no religion”. This was not a secularist plot, but an acknowledgement that those declaring they had “no religion” were very likely to be the most numerous category, followed by Catholics.
Alongside those declaring they have “no religion”, Australia now has – in addition to a highly diverse bloc of Christian groups that are very internally diverse – five substantial religious communities (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews).
How religion in changing in Australia
The 2016 Census showed major changes in the ranking order of religious identification groups in Australia. “No religion” leads Catholic, then Anglican, Uniting, Muslim, Buddhist, Presbyterian and Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, and then Sikh.
It is important to note that to keep a stable percentage of the population from 2011 to 2016, a religious group had to grow by 8.8% – the national population growth rate.
Australia now has more Muslims and more Buddhists than Presbyterians; more Hindus than Baptists or Lutherans; and nearly as many Sikhs as Lutherans.
Among those groups attracting double-digit percentages of the population, there has been a continued rise of those declaring “no religion” to become the most numerous group (30.1%). Catholics are at 22.6%, while Anglicans – who had been nudged out of the top spot in 1986 – have now slipped from a high of 41% in 1921 to third place at 13.3%.
Among those groups attracting between 2% and 5% of the population, the Uniting church has declined to 3.7%, while Presbyterians (2.3%) are now behind Buddhists (2.4%). But both have been overtaken by Muslims (2.6%). Thanks to migration, Hindus continued their rapid rise to achieve 1.9%.
Among those groups clustered around 1%, Pentecostals remain unchanged (1.1%). Lutherans (0.7%) are down from 1.2% in 2011.
The two fastest-growing religious groups since 2011 are Sikhs, who grew by 74.1%, and the “Other Protestant” category, which grew by 79.8%. Both are now 0.5% of the population, and are more numerous than Jews (0.4%).
The Other Protestant category includes many who just wrote in “Protestant”, and those identifying with unaffiliated congregations. This category’s growth, along with that labelled “Christian not further defined” (to 2.6%), is an indication of the decline of the importance of denominational labels to Australians who prefer to just indicate they are Christian. This is also an indication of religious groups’ increasing diversity in Australia.
The Christian proportion of the population has fallen to just over 50%, down from 88% 50 years ago. More significantly, the British Protestant percentage has declined to about 20%, making it smaller than Catholics. This marks a major shift in Australian culture, which – until about 1990 – was resolutely British Protestant, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists dominant.
Not only has the proportion of Christians declined, it has become much less British Protestant. Australia’s religious life has changed beyond recognition from the 1950s and 1960s, when British Protestants comprised two-thirds of the population.
Many who were raised in those decades, including political and business leaders, still hold that form of Australia to be normal and expected. This expectation is not shared by those aged under 50.
Formerly dominant organised forms of religious life are attracting fewer participants and fewer who identify with them – but they are far from dead. While no longer dominant, they form part of a diverse array of identities and commitments that shape Australians’ lives.
When the full results become available, we will be able to see how many Australians identify with the myriad small groups – Zoroastrians, Satanists, Scientologists, witchcraft/wicca, and more.
What we can draw from these results
Neither those who would declare that Australia is a Christian country nor those who see the rise of those declaring “no religion” as the death knell of religion can take heart from this census.
Rather, the results show the diversity of Australia’s religious life. That only 9.6% refused to reply to this question – the only optional question on the census – tells us that religious identity is still of interest to Australians.
Also, declaring “no religion” does not mean that someone is anti-religious, lacking is spirituality, or an atheist. It means they just do not identify with a particular organised form of religion.
The response to the religion question provides an indication of a person’s cultural orientation and formation. Religion, culture and formation used to be overlapping and reinforcing categories. For example, Catholics were Irish, went to Catholic schools, and shared certain orientations. Presbyterians were British (Scots or Northern Irish), went to state or private schools, and shared certain orientations.
While this overlapping is no longer true, religious identity is far from meaningless. The census provides a moving series of snapshots of religious identity. But it does not tell us about religious belief, practice, or anything else about a person’s religious life.
The changing pattern of the diversity of religious identities is one indicator of a society’s degree of multiculturalism. On this measure, Australia is among the most diverse.