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The 2014 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey is an anachronism

By Maggie Walter - posted Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The next National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) goes into the field in late 2014. This Australian Bureau of Statistics survey has its genesis in the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS) which, in turn, formed part of the governmental response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). The Royal Commission linked low socio-economic status with high rates of incarceration and identified a paucity of policy-relevant Indigenous data as a limit to more detailed analysis(Commonwealth of Australia 1991). A major purpose of NATSIS therefore was to both collect data across its major categories and establish base-line data for future comparison. The next two surveys, in 2002 and 2008, while broadly comparable to that conducted in 1994, shifted to the social survey format to improve its comparability with the General Social Survey.

In May 2013, I attended a 2014 NATSISS design and development data users' consultation. I came away deeply disappointed. The nub of my concern is that while the previous three national social surveys have included some inter data collection changes, essentially the survey has changed little. Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Australian society and the relations between the two, however, have changed substantially in the last 20 years. The most obvious result of this1994-2014 time warp is the tangible lack of Indigenous presence within the survey, its objectives, its content and its processes.

But as detailed in the following critique and argument NATSISS has the potential to make the conceptual and practical leap to 2014.


The Purpose

The NATSISS 2014 stated purpose is to monitor the social wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This was (perhaps) appropriate for 1994 but it is too limited for 2014. We already know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are heavily and continually negatively over-represented on every socio-economic indicator. Data collection but the current purpose suggests NATSISS is asking the wrong research question.

The Objectives

The monitoring priority is explicit in the seven survey objectives. These are listed in the Survey and Content Discussion Paper as:

  • Explore the extent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' participation in society and barriers to that participation
  • Provide broad information across key areas of social concern
  • Allow for inter-relationships between different areas of social concern to be explored and provide insight into the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face multiple social and/or economic disadvantage
  • Provide key indicators to facilitate reporting and monitoring on the social inclusion agenda
  • Provide comparisons with the non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population through the use of the 2014 General Social Survey and other data collections
  • Measure changes over time in the social and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through comparisons with the 1994 NATSIS, 2002 NATSISS and the 2008 NATSISS and the 2012 NATSIHS (sic) (The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey) as well as census estimates.
  • Complement a range of other data sources (e.g. admin-by-product data); and
  • Provide estimates at the national, state/territory and remotesness levels, as well as separate estimates for Torres Strait Islander people where feasible.

So, where are the Indigenous objectives? These objectives are all about Indigenous people, not for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This gap is more than semantics.

The NATSISS is a key data vehicle by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are known and understood by government, policy makers and Australia's non-Indigenous population and it is obvious that the objectives of these groups have high priority.

But it also should be a data source which informs the agenda and priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and governance organisations, service organisations, scholars and researchers. Yet these are absent. Again, there is scope to update and revise. Indigenous, Bureau and Government objectives are not incompatible and can, and should, work together in contemporary Australia.


The Content

The content is problematically, overwhelmingly, focussed on problems. The purpose seems to be to measure level of dysfunction and deficit. For example, at the consultation we were asked to consider adding questions around gambling. Yes, there are serious issues confronting our communities and measuring the manifestation of these issues is an important task. But it is only part of the task.

Aboriginal peoples are more than a social problem and, after 20 years, NATSISS should be reflecting this. Where are the questions on aspirations? Where are the questions on achievement? Where are the questions on what is good about being an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in Australia today?

More specifically, where are the questions to allow the survey to be more than one sided? NATSISS should be the conduit for Indigenous people to feed back views, perspectives and understandings over a whole range of issues of contemporary Indigenous importance to policy makers, the wider non-Indigenous Australian community, and, to other Indigenous people. Yes, comparability across and within surveys is important, but this criteria should not dictate the continuation of a process that is past their use by date.

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About the Author

Dr Maggie Walter is Deputy Director of the National Indigenous Researcher and Knowledges Network and Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania.

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All articles by Maggie Walter

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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