Australian First Nations
WATCH: Numbers that matter information session recording

Below is a snapshot of the First Nations section from the Census 2021: Numbers that matter report – you can read more about the report and its authors below this story, as well as explore the other core themes covered by the report.

Every five years there’s great excitement about what the latest Australian Census will say about our nation. It is a snapshot in time that provides important data points; but insights can only be drawn when that data is mixed with the experiences of people closely in touch with our communities.  Sharna Meinertz from Perpetual provides that invaluable community voice in the story below.

Read more about the lived experiences and voices of community in the full Census 2021: Numbers that matter report.  Delivered by Perpetual Philanthropy and Not-for-profit in conjunction with Seer Data & Analytics.

First Nations

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples population count 

The number of Australians who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander increased by 25% (163,557 people) in the five years from 2016 to 2021. A total of 812, 728 persons identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in 2021 as shown below.

First Nations population

Indigenous status is collected through self-identification and any change in how a person chooses to identify affects the count of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Census.  The population not stating their indigenous status fell from 1.4 million to 1.2 million in 2021.

The overall percentage of Australia’s population identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander has increased from 2.29% in 2006 to 3.2% in 2021.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population who report completing Year 12 and below

Amongst Indigenous Australians, Year 12 completion rose from 31% in 2016 to 37% in 2021 (as graphically represented below), compared to non-Indigenous Australians, where Year 12 completion rose from nearly 58% in 2016 to 62% in 2021.

Indigenous school completion

Community voice: Time to tick yes

by Sharna Meinertz, Perpetual

In 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt called a referendum to make two small, but incredibly significant changes to the wording of the Australian Constitution. Firstly, to remove the words “other than the Aboriginal race in any state” and secondly, to delete Section 127 of the Constitution, which stated that “Aborigines not to be counted in reckoning population”. The referendum was overwhelmingly supported by the Australian public, with a 91% Yes vote, enabling these changes to occur.

In 1971 the Census became the first to officially recognise Aboriginal people as part of the population of Australia.

The 2021 Census marked the 50th anniversary since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been included in this population count. Once again, the release of this data takes place in the shadow of another significant referendum which will ask Australians to consider constitutional change for the further recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As is for all Australians, the Census is a blunt tool of statistics and lacks a more detailed look at who the First Nations people are.

The 1971 Census listed 115,953 Aboriginal people representing 0.9% of the Australian population. On Census night 2021, this lifted to more than 812,000 people or 3.2% of the total population.

The raw data does not address the differences in the last 50 years; namely the increased willingness to participate in the Census, the value of anonymity to feel safe enough to disclose and acknowledge one’s identity and many from the Stolen generation feeling ready to make a connection back to community.

The 2021 Census does tell a story of improved outcomes over time for the First Nations people. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap utilises this data to improve how governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.

Soon, all Australians will once again be asked to consider constitutional changes, this time to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a greater voice to Parliament.

As leaders, I urge you to demonstrate your support of this defining moment in our history. Through words and actions, actively lift First Nations voices in your workplace. Provide a welcoming seat at the table – don’t just tick a box, listen.

The Census may provide the data, however we ask you to engage with the stories, to hear our voices, to see the work carried out by our communities and in our communities, to witness the strength of our determination. Trust in our voice that we can help design a better future for ourselves, for our children, and for all Australians.


With thanks to our community voice for this story:

Sharna Meinertz is a Senior Financial Adviser at Perpetual and a Yued Whadjuk Noongar woman. Sharna specialises in working with mission-driven clients, in particular philanthropists, not-for-profit organisations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. She is Chair of Perpetual’s Reconciliation Action Plan working group.

Census 2021: Numbers that matter – Learn more

About the report and its authors

Census 2021: Numbers that matter, a strategic compendium for Australia’s for-purpose leaders, boards and philanthropists, which asks and answers the big questions about how to make our society better for all.  The above story is a snapshot of the introduction only, with an additional seven core themes curated in the report, where experts from Perpetual and other social sector organisations reflect on some of the big issues facing our communities, by exploring a series of data insights drawn largely (but not completely) from the 2021 Census.

About Perpetual

Perpetual’s Philanthropy and Not-for-Profit team is one of Australia’s largest advisory teams working with philanthropic individuals, families and for-purpose organisations, helping them have an impact with their giving, investments and communities. For not-for-profits they provide governance, investment management and spending policy advice. They work with philanthropists to develop their giving strategies, set up the most appropriate giving approach for their circumstances and help them assess, choose and support the organisations and causes that matter to them. They work to bring these two groups together and to support them with thought leadership and analysis that helps them achieve more for their communities.

Report Authors

Caitriona Fay, Managing Partner, Community and Social Investment, Perpetual Private
Jane Magor, National Manager, Philanthropy & Non Profit Services, Perpetual Private

Get in touch with the Perpetual and Seer Data & Analytics team with any feedback or questions:

The next steps

EXPLORE the Census 2021 data assets, including insights, an interactive dashboard, and new insight builder tool coming soon.

READ the full report including on the ground insights behind the numbers contributed by community sector leaders.

WATCH Census 2021: Numbers that matter information session recording, where report authors expand on the topics in the report.