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II. De l’identification des populations autochtones à la reconnaissance de leurs territoires : quelle(s) géographie(s) ?

Settler-Colonial Spatial Logics and Indigenous internal (non)Migration in Australia

Logiques spatiales de colonie de peuplement et (non)migration autochtone intérieure en Australie
Sarah Prout Quicke

Résumés

En Australie, le concept nébuleux “d’isolement géographique” est au cœur de la politique sociale destinée au monde autochtone. Un imaginaire spatial tenace ancré dans la colonisation de peuplement considère l’Australie profonde simultanément en tant qu’espace de prédilection d’une autochtonie authentique, et comme un problème politique de grande complexité. Au cours des 50 dernières années, les petites communautés autochtones qui prédominent dans l’Australie profonde ont été essentiellement qualifiées, de façon cyclique et sur le plan discursif, de parasites : économiquement improductives (dans une logique néolibérale), socialement dysfonctionnelles et placées de ce fait sous perfusion de la dépense sociale gouvernementale. L’État soutient que l’investissement continu dans des services et des infrastructures essentielles dans ces petites communautés n’est pas viable. La justice spatiale et procédurale à l’origine de ces situations produit des géographies historiques dont la complexité et l’importance doivent être questionnées et prudemment analysées. L’objectif de cet article est cependant d’aborder de façon critique la « solution » politique envisagée au regard de « l’embarrassante tâche » de gouverner l’isolement géographique autochtone. En pratique, les politiques publiques australiennes reposent précisément sur l’idée tacite et largement infondée selon laquelle un accroissement de la migration autochtone des petites communautés rurales isolées vers de petites et grandes villes, parce qu’elle faciliterait l’accès des autochtones à l’éducation et à l’embauche, résoudra plus ou moins automatiquement ce problème politique complexe. Les données empiriques présentées dans cet article suggèrent que la population autochtone australienne expérimenterait actuellement une transition urbaine comparable à celle de nombreuses sociétés plus profondément rurales encore en Asie et en Afrique. Cependant, le contexte, la régulation, la gestion, l’expérience et les résultats de la migration des secteurs ruraux isolés vers la ville sont sans doute considérablement différents dans des États fondés sur des colonies de peuplement tel que l’Australie et dans des pays à faible et moyen revenu, et pas forcément toujours en phase avec les objectifs des politiques sociales étatiques. Cet article envisage de ce fait des approches alternatives à la manière d’aborder théoriquement la migration autochtone en géographie. Il revient en particulier sur la théorie des systèmes de migration rurale-urbaine de Mabogunje [1970], qui prête à la fois attention aux spécificités du contexte économique, socio-culturel et politique plus large dans lequel la migration prend place, et à la capacité d’agir des migrants, à leurs logiques, et à leur prise de décision et ses conséquences. Tout en dépassant ce que Kukutai et Taylor [2012] qualifient de « démographie postcoloniale » conventionnelle, une telle démarche invite à explorer les formes d’engagement possibles dans un savoir envisageant les décisions, catégories, expériences et conséquences de la migration autochtone dans une perspective décolonisée.

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I would like to thank the editors of this special issue for the invitation to contribute and for managing the review process so expertly. Thanks also to the anonymous referees for their most constructive comments on how the paper could be strengthened. Finally, I wish to extend my thanks to my colleague Professor Paul Plummer for providing valuable insights regarding conceptual and methodological issues, particularly with respect to contingency tables, and for his informal review of the empirical analysis presented in this paper.

Introduction

  • 1 Throughout the paper, where the word ‘state’ is capitalised, it is referring to one or more of Aust (...)

1In March of 2015, a radio interview in Australia between the public broadcaster and the then Prime Minister catalysed a media and public firestorm. Seven months earlier, the Federal government had announced its plan to end a long-standing agreement with State1 governments to provide funding for municipal and essential services in (often) small ‘remote’ Indigenous communities across the country. A one-off payment would be made to States to transfer these responsibilities by 2018. Some States argued that the cessation of Federal government funding support would threaten the future of many communities. Western Australia, for example, claimed that the likely result would be the forced closure of up to 150 (of some 274) of the State’s remote Indigenous communities. When asked about these potential closures during the March radio interview, and whether the government was “penalizing people for living in remote areas”, the Prime Minister responded by saying that the decision of many Indigenous Australians who remained living in small remote communities where there were few labour market opportunities, was a “lifestyle choice” that could not be “endlessly subsidised” by the state.

2Criticism was swift and widespread. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and community residents, concerned members of the broader public, academics (see e.g.Howitt and Mclean, 2015), and even Hollywood stars, countered that the issue was one of rights and justice: the right of Indigenous peoples to remain living on their customary homelands and practice their cultural obligations to care for them, if they so choose. They argued that the state’s proposed retreat from service obligations in remote regions smacked of another deeply sinister ploy to empty the land of Indigenous presence and dislocate Indigenous peoples from their customary territories.

3This highly charged public policy dispute was the latest iteration of a decades-old debate regarding the ‘viability’ of remote Indigenous communities in Australia. The specific representations of, and arguments about, the state, the ‘taxpayer’, and ‘remote Indigenous Australia’ that have been deployed on different sides of this debate demand their own careful analysis and critique (see e.g. Korte, 2019 for a detailed analysis of the recent Western Australian debate). The primary concern of this paper is to interrogate both the settler colonial spatial logics that underpin it, and one of the commonly advanced resolutions to the perceived predicament of governing Indigenous ‘remoteness’. The paper begins by outlining a three-part manoeuvre of what is termed here a settler-colonial spatial logic. This calculus firstly defines ‘remote’ Australia in relation to colonial settlement patterns. It then assigns authentic Indigeneity to ‘remote’ Australia. Finally, it constructs persistent remote Indigenous living as a wicked policy problem. This approach, it is argued, has led to tacit and largely untested assumptions within Australian public praxis that greater Indigenous migration from small remote and rural communities to larger towns and cities will alleviate financial strain on the state and improve Indigenous socio-economic outcomes.

4The second section of the paper draws on an analysis of a national population dataset, and a broader accumulated body of empirical evidence regarding Indigenous population distribution and migration, to challenge this settler-colonial spatial logic and its attendant policy assumptions, demographically. These empirical observations are brought into conversation with broader theoretical and conceptual insights from postcolonial studies, population science, and migration studies to begin to identify alternative rationalities and methodologies for understanding and explaining Indigenous population distribution and mobilities in Australia. These are, however, preliminary insights based primarily on quantitative techniques of analysis. The paper therefore concludes by pointing toward the need for more ground-level and textured narratives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples perspectives, experiences and choices with respect to (non)migration in order to more fully reconfigure, and indeed decolonise, dominant spatial logics in Australia for more policy just futures.

Settler Colonial Logics: Remoteness and Indigeneity

“If Western Australia was a country, it would be the 10th largest in the world… Distance, isolation and an often harsh climate create unique challenges for residents and governments” [Regional Services Reform Unit, 2016: 6].

  • 2 According to 2018 population estimates from the World Bank, and the Food and Agricultural Organisat (...)

5‘Remoteness’ is a unique part of settler-colonial rurality in Australia. At over 149 million km2 in size, and with approximately 70% of this area being arid or semi-arid land [Department of Environment and Energy, 2019], Australia is the 6th largest country in the world and has one of the lowest population densities on the planet2 [Geoscience Australia, 2019; World Bank, 2019]. Given that the centre and north of the country are dominated by tropical, semi-arid and arid rangelands, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the population is highly concentrated along the continent’s southern and eastern coastal fringe. Despite high rates of internal mobility, this overall distributive pattern has remained relatively stable since the colonial settlement began [Hugo et al., 2015] and likely for thousands of years prior to that point [Prout, 2011]. The confluence of these geographical, environmental and demographic circumstances creates significant distances between the nation’s larger coastal cities, and the smaller towns and communities located in the expansive rangeland regions. And, as the quote that introduces this section suggests, there are significant costs involved in facilitating the flow of people, resources, and communications across these distances.

  • 3 For a more detailed explanation of the methodology involved, see ABS [2018] and the Hugo Centre [20 (...)

6Constructions of remoteness and the Australian ‘outback’ have emerged over time as a relational way of embedding these distances within a settler-colonial spatial logic. However, the concept of remoteness was formally ‘located’ in Australia in the early 2000s when the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) embarked on a process to develop a geographical classification that would enable it to better compare ‘urban’, ‘regional’ and ‘remote’ areas and their aggregate populations for statistical purposes [ABS, 2001]. The resulting Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) ‘Remoteness Structure’ is based on the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA+) which scores localities (0-15) on the basis of road distance to the nearest of each of five differently sized populational service centre types3. The resulting average ARIA+ score is used to assign spatial units across the country into one of five remoteness categories. Figure 1 shows both these categories and their distribution across the country.

Figure 1. The ASGS Remoteness Structure.

Figure 1. The ASGS Remoteness Structure.

Source: ABS [2018].

7Two observations from this approach to defining remoteness are particularly relevant to the present discussion. First, and most obviously, it designates most of the country’s landmass as ‘remote’ or ‘very remote’. Socio-demographic analyses that adopt this structure for comparative purposes are therefore necessarily very coarse. Second, and arguably more importantly for the present discussion, the logical rationality underpinning the methodology for defining remoteness within this structure reifies settler-colonial spatial thinking. In designating remoteness according to distance from larger population centres, space is organised from a particular vantage point: ‘remote’ Australia is demarcated in reference to the earliest, and now largest colonial settlements, located predominantly in southern and eastern Australia. In this view, the continent is orientated from its predominantly coastal, colonial cities which form its ‘centre’, through its surrounding rural hinterlands, and toward the ‘outback’ of remote Australia. In essence, distance extends along the same trajectory as the colonial frontier followed. The semantics are also important here. Most conceptualisations of ‘remoteness’ have a sort of deficit framing. They often connote lack of connection, aloofness, strangeness or estrangement, difference, and unlikeliness. By its very nature, the label of ‘remoteness’ implies ‘far apartness’, perhaps in multiple ways. These discursive subjectivities become particularly important when remote Australia is predominantly populated within the settler-colonial imagination by Indigenous peoples.

Remote Indigeneity

8In his influential 1970 volume “The Destruction of Aboriginal Society”, Charles Rowley divided Australia conceptually into what he referred to as ‘colonial’ and ‘settled’ areas (see Figure 2). Noting the significant problems of census data reliability at the time for properly enumerating the Indigenous population, he nonetheless found that the enumerated Indigenous population was larger than the non-Indigenous population in ‘Colonial Australia’. By contrast, in ‘Settled Australia’, the (under-enumerated) presence of Indigenous peoples was significantly below that of non-Indigenous peoples. He therefore designated ‘Colonial Australia’ as the ‘Aboriginal area’ and ‘Settled Australia’ as the ‘white area’ (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Rowley’s (1970) Map of ‘Colonial and Settled Australia’.

Figure 2. Rowley’s (1970) Map of ‘Colonial and Settled Australia’.

Source: Rowley [1970: 377].

9This geographical delineation has proved remarkably resilient in scholarly and policy dialogues regarding Indigenous Australia. As Hinkson and Smith [2005] note, ‘remote Australia’ has continued to be conceived as a context marked by cultural difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lifeworlds. The designation of ‘remote’ Australia as the heartland of authentic Indigeneity, and the central focus of Indigenous affairs social policy, is not simply a reflection of demographic and cultural realities. It is a deeply political exercise within the settler-colonial imaginary. And with the emergence of a neoliberal political economy, it forms part of a rationality that configures Indigenous remoteness as a wicked policy problem.

The Origins of a Wicked Policy Problem

10Many Indigenous peoples have lived in ‘remote Australia’ over generations, and despite a range of policy efforts to contain and/or urbanise them since the colonial frontier first reached them [Prout and Howitt, 2009]. The communities in which they reside today vary in size from less than 50 people, to almost 1000 people. Some of these communities are within commuting distance to ‘mainstream’ towns and cities. Others are not. Some began as government settlements, missions, and reserves established to contain Indigenous presence during the early period of frontier expansion. Others have more recent origins. By the early 1970s, many colonial-era remote settlements and missions were deinstitutionalised and became incorporated as Indigenous-governed communities as part of a broader shift in Indigenous affairs policy toward what was termed ‘self-determination’. Many Indigenous peoples also began to move back to their ancestral territories of belonging to form (usually) small, decentralised kin-based communities. Myers and Peterson [2016] identify several drivers of this movement. These included a desire to avoid the social and health problems (e.g. alcoholism, conflict, depression, illness) commonly associated with life in larger missions, settlements and towns; the felt need to be physically present on country in the face of threats to it associated with major industries such as mining; and an eagerness to minimise non-Indigenous presence in their lives.

11The Federal government ostensibly supported this movement by providing small establishment grants to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who chose to return to their ancestral homelands [Education and Health Standing Committee, 2007]. However, as Myers and Peterson [2016] note, responsibility for the provision of housing and essential services and infrastructure (e.g. power, water, waste removal, etc.) for these newly establishing and incorporated communities has always been jurisdictionally muddied and contested. The Federal government clearly viewed its role as providing ‘seed’ and ‘special’ funding for establishing these settlements, while the State was responsible for providing the essential and municipal services to which all citizens are entitled [Education and Health Standing Committee, 2007]. By contrast, the State’s view was that the Federal government had supported this ‘Homelands Movement’ and so they needed to maintain financial responsibility for servicing the resulting communities [Education and Health Standing Committee, 2007]. While State, Territory, and Federal governments eventually arrived at shared funding agreements, these arrangements have continued to been administered through complex, contested, siloed mechanisms, often resulting in both service gaps and cost blow-outs. Funding for new outstation communities ceased in the mid 1990s and by the end of that decade, a new policy discourse had emerged that constructed the movement as, in essence, a policy failure. Political questions began to fix on the ‘viability’ of these communities where no ‘real economy’ exists.

12Since that time, ‘remote’ Indigenous communities have been cyclically and discursively positioned as essentially parasitic: economically unproductive (in a neoliberal market sense), socially dysfunctional, and a consequent drain on government social spending. The argument appears to be that the disproportionate cost of providing essential and social services to these communities is not commensurate with the benefit to the state (or in its most benevolent guise, residents of these communities themselves) of so doing.

13The current neoliberal policy era of ‘mainstreaming,’ ‘normalisation’, ‘conditionality’ and ‘closing-the-gap’ [Curchin, 2016], has tacitly positioned migration from remote and rural areas to more established towns and cities, as an inevitable and indeed central mechanism for increasing mainstream economic participation [Taylor, 2011a] and resolving this wicked policy problem. For example, the Western Australian government’s ‘roadmap’ for addressing remote Indigenous service delivery states that: “In concentrating on towns and larger communities, the State Government expects to support fewer communities over time, particularly as migration away from small outstations continues” [Regional Services Reform Unit, 2016: 12].

14However, such assumptions and approaches have been contested, even by government advisors. For example, one of two key findings of the landmark 2007 Western Australian parliamentary report into remote Indigenous communities was that: “There is little available evidence to demonstrate the benefits of recentralisation from small to large remote Aboriginal communities; and there is some evidence to the contrary, particularly in relation to health outcomes” [Education and Health Standing Committee, 2007: 72]. It is to this critical issue of empirical evidence that the paper now turns. The analysis examines the actual distribution of the Indigenous population across the country, and the extent and nature of migration from more remote and rural areas, to larger towns and cities.

Recent Trends in Australian Population (Re)Distribution

15The main data source available for analysing broad population trends in Australia is the ABS’s five-yearly Census of Population and Housing. Two challenges present themselves when drawing on census data to analyse Indigenous ‘settlement’ and migration patterns. The first relates to how population statistics such as those gathered through the census have historically, and often problematically, been a powerful instrument of governmentality [Walter, 2016; Walter and Andersen, 2013]. Taylor [2009; 2011a; 2011b; Kukutai and Taylor, 2012] argues that the capture of population data to assess the socio-economic and demographic status of Indigenous peoples has at least two clear dangers. First, it is usually undertaken in a top-down fashion that positions Indigenous people as having limited agency. Second, it produces a false sense of collective identity (i.e. ‘the Indigenous population’) that is defined using dominant society frameworks, and measured against dominant society norms. According to Taylor [2011b: 287], this postcolonial demography ‘disables us from articulating a geography of Indigenous peoples that reflects their world view and practices’.

16Over the last decade, the Indigenous data sovereignty movement has begun to articulate alternative frameworks, scales, and categories of analysis that are recognisable to, and meaningful for Indigenous peoples and communities [Kukutai and Walter, 2015; Kukutai and Taylor, 2012; 2016]. However, to date there are no alternative datasets for examining Indigenous population trends at large scales. The following analysis therefore engages critically and cautiously with census data and categories, mindful of its limitations and tendencies to frame populations in more undifferentiated ways than they are in reality.

17The second, more practical challenge in using census data to analyse Indigenous population distribution and migration from smaller, more sparsely populated localities to larger more urban centres, is that there are no ABS geographies designed for such purposes. As we have seen, the closest available geography - ASGS Remoteness Structure - characterises areas on the basis of their distance between localities of different sizes, rather than producing a typology of locations. This means that differently-sized towns and cities may exist within a given remoteness area category. Movements up the settlement hierarchy within the same remoteness would not be captured using this structure.

  • 4 Indigenous Areas are one of the geographical units that fit within the ASGS ‘Indigenous Structure’. (...)

18Taylor and Biddle [2008] developed an alternative structural classification that coded ‘Indigenous Areas’4 into eight ‘location types’ according to remoteness, the size of the urban centre, and in some cases, the proportion of the urban centre that identified as being Indigenous. While this typology disaggregates ‘remote Australia’ into several distinct location types, it is less sensitive to the size of larger towns and cities. Population centres with 10 000 residents or more are disaggregated into only two categories: ‘Large Regional Towns’ (with populations of 10 000 – 100 000) and ‘City Areas’ (with populations that exceed 100 000).

  • 5 The ABS SA2 geography was preferred because there was consistency in the boundaries of this geograp (...)

19For the present analysis, which was particularly concerned with the nature of population (re)distribution along the settlement hierarchy, a customised location typology was therefore developed. As the descriptions in Table 1 indicate, the typology was derived using a mix of objective criteria (such as population thresholds), as well as distance between places and dominant land-use types, to generate a delineation of urban hierarchies and non-urban area types that functionally make sense across Australia’s States and Territories. Remote sensing of satellite imagery was then used to code each of the Australia’s 2310 Statistical Area Level 2s (SA2s) to one of these location types. Satellite imagery obtained by Google Maps was used to visually demarcate the functional boundaries of: cities and towns; agricultural areas; and pastoral/desert/tropical rangelands. Each SA2 was then assigned as either within or beyond those boundaries according to the criteria outlined in Table 1. This process enabled the analysis of where the population is distributed along the location typology and how those distributions changed over the most recent inter-censal period of 2011-20165. Each location type is named according to dominate land-use/environment by which it is characterised.

Table 1. Customised Location Typology.

Description

Notes/Justification

Capital Cities

Includes SA2s where the majority of the population resides within the functional limits of the capital city for each State and Territory

Some capitals (e.g. Hobart and Darwin) are smaller than some Large Regional Cities (e.g. Gold Coast). Nevertheless, they constitute the largest city in each State and Territory and therefore serve as the most significant urban area in each jurisdiction

Large Regional Cities (LRC’s)

Includes SA2s where the majority of the population resides within the functional limits of non-capital cities with a population of over 50 000 residents

Most of these are located in Queensland and New South Wales. There are none in South Australia and Northern Territory and only one in each of Tasmania and Western Australia

Small Regional Cities (SRC’s)

Includes SA2s where the majority of the population resides within the functional limits of a city with 10 000 – 50 000 people

10 000 is the population threshold for what are defined as ‘Significant Urban Areas’ by the ABS. This is also the threshold many countries use for defining an urban area

Rural Areas

Includes SA2s where the majority of the population live dispersed across settlements with fewer than 10 000 people, but within less than approx. 200km of a city (>10 000 people) and/or in an agricultural region

Rangeland Areas

Includes SA2s where the majority of the population live dispersed across settlements with fewer than 10 000 people, and are more than approx. 200km from the nearest city (>10 000 people) and/or in a pastoral/desert/tropical region

There are no Rangeland Areas in Victoria or Tasmania

Population Distribution

20Population counts, by Indigenous status, for each of these coded SA2s show that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) population remains less urbanised, and far more evenly distributed across urban, Rural and Rangeland areas of Australia, than the Non-Indigenous population (NI). As Table 2 shows, another stark contrast between the two population groups is in Rangeland areas, where proportionally, Indigenous peoples have a much greater presence. However, at only 15.2%, the Rangeland location type is still one of the two lowest concentrations of any location type in terms of the overall distribution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. And, both populations have their largest concentrations in capital cities and rural areas.

Table 2. Percent of Population in Each Location Category, 2016.

Capitals

LRC

SRC

Total Urban*

Rural

Rangeland

ATSI

29.1

14.9

16.4

60.4

24.5

15.2

NI

62.1

11.8

8.4

82.3

17.4

0.7

*Population centres with > 10 000 residents

Source: Author’s calculations based on 2016 census data

21Figure 3 breaks the data down further by State and Territory. It shows the much more even distribution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population across different location types in each State and Territory, compared with the non-Indigenous population which is clearly concentrated in major capitals, rural New South Wales (NSW), and urban centres in regional Queensland (Qld). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is most concentrated in rural and regional (urban) NSW and Qld. Sydney and Brisbane are the two cities that share the largest proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population living in capital cities.

Figure 3. Distribution of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous populations, 2016.

Figure 3. Distribution of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous populations, 2016.

Migration

  • 6 ‘Inward’ migration rates are the sum of all people who moved into each location type between 2011-2 (...)

22To examine recent patterns and flows of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander migration, linked individual census records showing identified place of usual residence in 2016 and 2011 were used to produce a contingency table comparing the location type each individual was living in during the base year (2011) with their location type in 2016. For each location type, net rates of migration were also derived by calculating the difference between rates of inward and outward migration6. The results are tabulated in Table 3. These data are also presented diagrammatically, showing the size of each migration pathway, in Figure 4.

Table 3. Share of 2011 Population by 2016 Location Type.

Location Category of Residence in 2016

Total Population

Capital

LRC

SRC

Rural

Rangeland

Total

Location Category of Residence in 2011

Capital

131 678

3 802

3 856

7 983

1 209

148 528

LRC

3 672

61 946

2 258

5 540

1 174

74 590

SRC

4 898

3 630

64 488

7 641

1 763

82 420

Rural

6 796

6 605

9 093

103 821

1 291

127 606

Rangeland

2 030

1 659

2 483

1 811

66 897

74 880

Total

149 074

77 642

82 178

126 796

72 334

508 024

Migration Rates (%)

Inward

11.71

21.04

21.46

18.00

7.26

Outward

11.34

16.95

21.76

18.64

10.66

Net

0.37

4.09

-0.29

-0.63

-3.40

Source: Author’s calculations based on 2016 census data.

Figure 4. Diagrammatic Representation of Indigenous Migration Flows, 2011-2016.

Figure 4. Diagrammatic Representation of Indigenous Migration Flows, 2011-2016.

23Two important patterns emerge from this analysis. The first is that the largest net percentage gains of population (+4.09%) between the 2011-2016 intercensal period were to Large Regional Cities and the largest net percentage losses were to Rangeland areas (-3.40%). As Figure 4 shows, these redistributions are not all the result of simple linear progressions along the settlement hierarchy. However, in large measure they are likely to reflect Australia’s settlement geography. For example, the largest flows away from Rangeland areas were toward Small Regional Cities and Capital cities, which are the two most common proximate location types to much of Australia’s northern and central Rangeland areas. Likewise, much of the movement toward Large Regional Centres was from Rural Areas: likely those in adjacent hinterland areas.

24The second and related key pattern to emerge from the analysis is the high rates of circulation between most location types. For example, of the 14 779 people moving between Rural areas and Capital Cities, more than half (54.0%) were moving from cities to Rural Areas. The highest rates of circulation were into and out of Small Regional Cities, Large Regional Centres, and Rural areas, and the largest volumes of movement were into and out of Rural areas. Indeed, in terms of both the overall distribution of the Indigenous population, and the scale and volume of Indigenous migration, Rural areas appear to be a pivotal location type. By some contrast, the most ‘stable’ location type was Rangeland Areas. While Rangeland Areas proportionally experienced the greatest net loss of population over the intercensal period, these areas experienced the least amount of both inward and outward migration over the intercensal period by a significant margin. That is, fewer people left or moved to Rangeland Areas over the intercensal period than any of the other four location types.

25It is also important to note that those who did move between location types over the intercensal period were in the minority. Concentrating on patterns of population movement can obscure the reality that only a relatively small proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population moved anywhere along the location typology between 2011-2016. As Table 4 shows, 84.41% of the population either did not migrate, or moved between locations of the same type between 2011 and 2016. Overall, it also shows a net rate of migration up the settlement hierarchy (i.e. from more sparsely settled location types to more urbanised location types) of +1.11%.

Table 4. Share of the Total 2016 Population by 2011 and 2016 Location Types.

Location Category Type of Residence in 2016

Percent of Population

Capital

LRC

SRC

Rural

Rangeland

Location Category of Residence in 2011

Capital

25.92

0.75

0.76

1.57

0.24

LRC

0.72

12.19

0.44

1.09

0.23

SRC

0.96

0.71

12.69

1.50

0.35

Rural

1.34

1.30

1.79

20.44

0.25

Rangeland

0.40

0.33

0.49

0.36

13.17

No change in location type (2011-2016)

84.41%

Total movement ‘up’ the Settlement hierarchy (2011-2016)

8.04%

Total movement ‘down’ the Settlement hierarchy (2011-2016)

6.93%

Net rate of movement up the Settlement Hierarchy (2011-2016)

+1.11%*

* This excludes movements between Rural and Rangeland areas because there was no difference in the settlement hierarchy between these two location types.

Source: Author calculations based on 2016 Census data

26In sum then, the analysis indicates that the Indigenous population is relatively evenly distributed across the different location types in Australia. The net change in distribution between 2011-2016 in Indigenous population distribution as a result of migration was very slightly toward larger settlement types. However, the majority of the population did not change their location type. This was particularly so in Rangeland areas. Across the other location types, where migration occurred, high rates of population circulation (currents and counter-currents) were a feature.

Indigenous ‘Urbanisation’?

27Though the analysis presented above represents only a short-range view of the contribution of migration to population distribution, when situated within a longer-range set of empirical observations, the findings form part of a growing body of evidence regarding the (non)migration decisions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In his excellent overview of the longer-term patterns of Indigenous population distribution, Taylor [2006] notes that in the second half of the 20th century, there was a significant observed shift in the distribution of the Indigenous population in Australia towards urban areas, as many of the previous policy and legislative impediments to Indigenous peoples living in cities and towns were being reformed and repealed. He notes however, that there is some debate about the extent to which migration might have been responsible for this redistribution. While early empirical evidence pointed to both a rise in the urban Aboriginal population, and out-migration from rural areas, the former may in part have been a product of the increasing tendency of Indigenous peoples living in urban areas to self-identify, and the latter rarely considered counter-flows of movement [Taylor, 2006]. Citing Gray [1989], Taylor goes on to conclude that if rural-urban migration had played a leading role in increasing Indigenous urbanisation between the 1950s-60s, this had ceased by the 1970s.

28In his own analysis of intercensal population change between 1991-1996, Taylor observed slight net gains to city areas, but high levels of population turnover between city areas and their hinterlands: a pattern he described as consistent since the 1980s. He noted a strong correlation between these patterns of population circulation and Indigenous life stages arguing that:

“… high population turnover between cities and their hinterlands [is so high that] Indigenous people in the city are not just similar to those in country areas – to a large extent they are the same people spatially displaced at different stages of their lives. Consistently, over the past 20 years, net migration gains to cities have been concentrated in the 15-29 age group followed by net migration loss in most cities in older ages.” [Taylor, 2006: 63].

29These same patterns – small net gains to urban areas through migration and high rates of life-stage related circulation – have been observed in each empirical analysis of Indigenous migration that has taken place since that time. In his analysis of the 2001-2006 inter-censal period, Biddle [2009] found that the highest rates of net migration gain were to regional cities of between 10 000 - 100 000 people, and highest rates of net migration loss were from ‘remote’ areas. However, as in the present study, those living in areas defined as ‘remote’ had the lowest propensity to move. Like Taylor [2006], he found that the propensity to move peaked among those in their 20s and was less common for those who were young (lower school aged) and older (55+). Many of those who moved to larger cities were aged 15-19, suggesting a degree of sensitivity to the (lack of) availability of secondary schooling in particular location types [Biddle, 2009]. Some (mostly now dated) qualitative studies also gesture at the possibility of significant differences in migration patterns, drivers, and outcomes by gender and across the lifecourse (see e.g. Birdsall, 1988; Gale, 1981; Smith, 2004). However, very little is known about how demographic differences might shape the migration decisions, experiences, and outcomes of Indigenous Australians in different ways.

30Over the next inter-censal period, Biddle and Markham [2013] found that of the 15.4% of the Indigenous population that changed their location between 2006-2011, the largest net gains were again in population centres with up to 100 000 residents, and most migration occurred between ‘urban’ location types and within areas that they classified as ‘remote’ [Biddle and Markham, 2013]. There was no major migration out of ‘remote’ Australia, but there was considerable movement within ‘remote’ Australia.

31It would appear then, that there is very little evidence that Indigenous migration is driving significant levels of urbanisation, particularly on a permanent basis. Almost two decades of cyclical policy conjecture about the ‘viability’ of ‘remote’ communities, and protracted jurisdictional debates regarding the responsibility for providing basic services to these communities have resulted in service gaps and uncertainty for many Indigenous peoples living in those communities. And yet, these pressures do not appear to have significantly influenced Indigenous long-term migration practices. Rather, what emerges from the data over time is a picture of high population turnover in and through urban areas, probably explained in significant measure by age and life stage considerations, and a low propensity for those living in Rangeland areas to move permanently away from those areas.

Reconceptualising Indigenous (non)Migration

32Dockery [2016] argues that improving conceptual understandings of Indigenous population mobility and migration is critical for real-world policy engagement for two reasons. First, policy responses require the kind of understandings of the drivers of migration that can be used to build predictive models. Second, and perhaps more importantly, when Indigenous people’s movements have failed to conform to conventional migration trajectories, they have often been considered either purposeless or problematic. Challenging these settler logics by surfacing alternative rationalities is a critical part of moving beyond both ‘postcolonial demography’ and ‘Homo economicus’ [Carling and Collins, 2018: 911] as the dominant frames through which Indigenous spatiality is interpreted in Australia. This final section of the paper points toward potential ways forward in this endeavour.

33Conventional neoclassical theories of internal migration appear to be of little assistance in making sense of the population dynamics described in the preceding section. Economic models of internal migration as an individual or household income maximisation or risk minimising strategy have little explanatory power here [Burke, 2013; Dockery, 2016; Taylor & Bell, 2004]. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not appear to be moving toward larger employment markets in great volume as part of broader livelihood strategies. In fact, emerging evidence indicates that Indigenous migrants to urban areas are likely to have worse labour market outcomes than those who do not move (in both source and destination locations) [Biddle, 2009; Biddle and Crawford, 2015]. Reflecting on these trends, Biddle [2009: 29] concludes that “Although governments may have a fiscal motivation to encourage Indigenous Australians to move from non-urban to urban Australia, those who do move may struggle to compete in the private sector labour markets that they find there”. The assumption that Indigenous migration from Rangeland to more urban areas is both inevitable and will lead to improved economic outcomes for Indigenous peoples appears deeply flawed.

34Part of the reasons for this may be that livelihood diversification can and does take place within Rangeland areas. For example, Altman [2001] has, over many years, developed the thesis that many Indigenous peoples in Rangeland areas engage in what he has termed a ‘hybrid economy’. Here, the non-monetised customary sphere of productive activities such as hunting, gathering, fishing, and ecosystem management, intersects with state-based provision of services and social welfare supports (in instances where they are unable to work due to physical, personal or geographical circumstances), and market-based opportunities (e.g. within the art, mining, pastoral and natural resource management industries). However, it must be noted that in Rangeland areas, access to customary hunting grounds and resources is increasingly contested, market-based opportunities are limited, and state-based service provision and social welfare support mechanisms are increasingly circumscribed. Many Indigenous peoples living in these localities therefore experience extreme socio-economic disadvantage.

35There are other important non-market considerations that have been demonstrated in the literature to ‘fix’ the mobility of many Indigenous peoples within particular regions of belonging, which may fall within or across different location types. In particular, patterns of contemporary population (im)mobility reflect both enduring and transformed pre-colonial constellations where Indigenous ontologies, identities, economies, and social and spiritual systems were bound up in their connections to the customary homelands or ‘country’, and related kinship networks [Prout, 2014; Dockery, 2016; Morphy, 2007]. Those that feel strong cultural obligations to engage in customary practices to care for country, or who are simply more culturally comfortable living on country, may have deep reservations about contemplating any permanent or semi-permanent move away from their clan estate. Similarly, Indigenous relational ontologies mean that kin relatedness also often plays a critical role in determining both the temporal and spatial dimensions of Indigenous migration and mobility practices [Prout, 2014]. Indigenous household and kinship structures are often broadly defined around extended family units [Morphy, 2007]. A common feature of these kinship networks is a ‘domestic moral economy’ underpinned by demand sharing, reciprocity, and the accumulation of mutual obligations [Martin and Taylor, 1996; Davies et al., 2011]. Gibson [2010] argues that these relational systems often play a more important role than market-based employment in shaping Indigenous choices and practices.

36Temporary, circular migration within patterned regions of belonging seems to emerge, then, as a more prominent form of population movement and distribution than permanent forms of internal migration up (or down) the settlement hierarchy. For example, in his analysis of the Walpiri diaspora Burke [2013] notes that while some Walpiri had permanently migrated to larger settlements, major towns, or cities, the permanent diaspora is relatively small while patterns of circular migration remain dominant.

37Given the limitations of neoclassical models for explaining Indigenous spatialities (including both population distribution, processes of redistribution due to migration, and more circular forms of temporary mobility) in Australia, Dockery [2016] proposed a more generalised utility maximisation model as an alternative approach for understanding Indigenous mobility and migration. Here, increasing wellbeing, rather than income is the central rationality. This approach has many strengths, including the required adoption of a spatial logic that positions various different kinds of Indigenous (im)mobility and (non)migration as productive means through which Indigenous peoples seek and establish a sense of wellbeing. The limitation here, though, is the same as those which have been applied to utility maximising models in the context of internal migration elsewhere: namely, it fails to sufficiently account for the broader socio-cultural and political contexts that enable and constrain mobility and migration choices (see e.g. Carling and Collins, 2018; de Haas, 2010; Rigg, 2007). Indeed Bakewell [2010: 1694] argues that the development of coherent migration theory, generally, has been hindered by the intractable challenge of finding the balance between structure and agency in migration research.

  • 7 This is not to say that such mechanisms are absent altogether. Harris and Prout Quicke [2018] in Au (...)

38Systems approaches to internal migration, pioneered by Mabogunje [1970], represent one attempt to recognise both social structures and individual agency in migration theory, by identifying the basic interacting elements in a migration system (migrants and institutions, and their attributes and relationships), as well as the environment in which the system operates (e.g. the factors that influence the migration system: from the political economy, to more localised socio-cultural norms). As King [2012] notes, Mabogunje’s approach moved beyond linear and simplistic push-pull heuristics to consider flows, interlinkages, adjustments and feedback mechanisms. It recognised that internal migration is a ‘circular, interdependent, progressively complex and self-modifying system’ [Mabogunje, 1970: 16]. However, the emphasis of Mabogunje’s model is on permanent forms of rural-urban migration. And as Bakewell [2014] explains, for a migration system to be found to be in operation there must be evidence that migration leads to more migration. Such evidence might include the establishment of new institutions such as migrant associations, changing norms in migration (perhaps in the form of increased social pressure on people to emigrate), or the creation of specific businesses in urban areas with demand for new migrants. There is currently limited evidence of structural systemic feedback dynamics underpinning Indigenous internal migration in Australia7. This is not surprising, given the empirical data do not appear to indicate that relatively permanent rural-urban migration is a dominant population dynamic.

39Nevertheless, conceptual approaches to the study of migration that hold together as ‘co-productive’, both individual (non)migration choices and the wider structural circumstances that intersect with these choices, have great value for seeking to develop more robust conceptualisation of Indigenous population distribution and mobility. Feminist approaches to migration scholarship offer some helpful conceptual and methodological framings in this respect, positioning migrants as embedded in intersecting political, economic, socio-cultural and relational processes that shape their decisions and actions, within which they play an agentic role [Silvey, 2004]. Adopting such approaches to understanding Indigenous spatialities invites theorisations of, and policy responses to, Indigenous (non)migration that a) guard against caricaturising Indigenous peoples as lacking any agency within their settler-colonial contexts (see e.g. calls from Andersen, 2009; Coombes et al., 2012) and b) wrestle intellectually and empirically with the present logics and assumptions that frame practices of measuring Indigenous population distribution and movement, and the selective policy discourses those practices enable. They do this by placing the voices and logics of Indigenous peoples as central to the analysis.

40In the broader migration literature, methodologies that privilege migrant narratives have become critical to theoretical developments regarding the regulation, negotiation and outcomes of internal migration [King, 2012]. To move beyond what Kukutai and Taylor [2012] refer to as conventional ‘postcolonial demography’ in Australia, greater research and policy efforts must be directed towards listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s stories of (non)migration; to engage with their aspirations, choices and outcomes. Very little is known, for example, about the trade-offs and perceived degrees of choice that shape Indigenous people’s (non)migration decisions, and precisely how (if at all) government policy actually informs these trades-offs and perceptions.

41As the empirical analysis in this paper shows, while existing population datasets can be configured to illuminate particular migration dynamics at large scales, and thus have the potential to be abstracted for theoretical development, they fundamentally reflect ‘mainstream’ Australian categorisations of people, place, and time. Where these kinds of analyses can be brought into more direct conversation with ground-level textured narratives of the lived experiences and outcomes of migration decisions for Indigenous peoples through mix-methodological research designs, the possibilities for illuminating the intersecting political, economic, socio-cultural and relational dynamics that shape Indigenous (im)mobilities and explain or challenge conventional analytical frames, increase. Furthermore, positioning the lifeworlds, relational ontologies, aspirations, and sovereign rights, of Indigenous peoples as central to understandings of Indigenous (non)migration opens up possibilities for developing population datasets and attendant analyses, which employ categories of people, place and time that are recognisable and meaningful to Indigenous peoples (see e.g. Morphy, 2007; 2010; Taylor, 2009).

Conclusion

42In Australia, the nebulous concept of ‘remoteness’ has been central to Indigenous Affairs social policy since the colonial era began. This paper has argued that an enduring settler-colonial spatial logic positions ‘remote’ Australia as simultaneously both the heartland of authentic Indigeneity, and a wicked policy problem. Over the last 50 years, the small Indigenous communities that predominate in ‘remote’ Australia have been cyclically and discursively positioned as unviable and parasitic. The state’s recent approach to this policy ‘problem’ has been to chart a course toward service rationalisation in these communities and to tacitly assume that such rationalisation will result in increased migration toward larger population centres, providing a satisfactory resolution.

43However, the analysis presented in this paper suggests that on three counts, these logics and assumptions urgently need to be reconfigured. First, Indigeneity is not synonymous with remoteness. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is distributed relatively evenly across the main location types that operate functionally in Australia: small rural and rangeland communities; regional centres, and large cities. There is no singular ‘heartland’ of Indigeneity in Australia, from a demographic perspective. Evidence-informed governance would therefore reflect an awareness of, and responsiveness to these demographic realities of population distribution.

44Second, Australia’s rangelands are not ‘remote’ to those Indigenous peoples whose continuously-occupied ancestral homelands and kinship networks lie within them. Such framings within a neoliberal political economy limit the possibilities for engaging in more productive policy dialogues about their futures. Third, there is little indication that Indigenous peoples living in Australia’s Rangeland areas are migrating away from these localities toward more ‘settled’ areas at significant rates, even in the absence of basic infrastructure, services and opportunities. This reality surely provides some indication of the socio-cultural value of these areas and the life projects which they facilitate. They may also indicate that larger urban centres lack appeal to many of those who live in Rangeland areas.

45The most significant population dynamic to emerge from the empirical analysis presented in this paper, which aligns with identified historical patterns, is a high degree of circulation of Indigenous peoples in and through rural and urban areas. Most Indigenous migration, whether up or down the settlement hierarchy, does not appear to be long-term or permanent in nature. Furthermore, evidence from related analyses seem to suggest that demography may have a strong relationship to these circular migration practices. This paper argues that Indigenous social policy must be cognisant of, and responsive to, these dynamics and their underlying rationalities.

46While valuable work has already been undertaken to illuminate and articulate some of these underlying dynamics and rationalities, new research efforts are required to better understand Indigenous migration pathways and return migration practices, including the dynamics of Indigenous labour- and education-related migration (where it exists), translocalities, and the gendered and life-course dimensions to Indigenous migration practices. In order to build more sophisticated understandings of the dynamics that will shape Indigenous population distribution into the future, these efforts must be attentive to the prevailing economic, socio-cultural and political environments within which migration occurs, and how they intersect with migrant agency, logics, decision-making processes and outcomes. Only then can social policy and political decision-making regarding the optimal scale and location of government services delivery practices be reconfigured to operate in ways that align with the spatial logics that shape Indigenous lived experience in different location types.

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Notes

1 Throughout the paper, where the word ‘state’ is capitalised, it is referring to one or more of Australia’s six State jurisdictions. Where it is not capitalised, it is referring more generally to the Commonwealth of Australia as a governing entity.

2 According to 2018 population estimates from the World Bank, and the Food and Agricultural Organisation, Australia has a current population density of 3.25 ppl/km2 and sits above only Greenland, Mongolia and Namibia on this measure globally.

3 For a more detailed explanation of the methodology involved, see ABS [2018] and the Hugo Centre [2019].

4 Indigenous Areas are one of the geographical units that fit within the ASGS ‘Indigenous Structure’. They aggregate Indigenous locations (which are themselves aggregations of Statistical Area Level 1s) to attempt to better represent the distribution of the Indigenous population nationally. In 2016, there were 430 Indigenous Areas covering the whole of Australia.

5 The ABS SA2 geography was preferred because there was consistency in the boundaries of this geography over the last intercensal period, and because geography was designed to identify socially and economically interacting communities. They are delineated according the extent and size of the population (of up to 25 000 people) that access services at a centre in an area.

6 ‘Inward’ migration rates are the sum of all people who moved into each location type between 2011-2016 as a percentage of the 2011 population. ‘Outward’ migration rates are the sum of all moves out of that location type over the same period as a percentage of the 2011 population.

7 This is not to say that such mechanisms are absent altogether. Harris and Prout Quicke [2018] in Australia, and Wilson and Peters [2005] in Canada identify some examples drawing on transnational and translocal theoretical frames to understand particular kinds of rural-urban migration amongst Indigenous peoples. The point here is that these kinds of examples are not widespread within the scholarly literature.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The ASGS Remoteness Structure.
Crédits Source: ABS [2018].
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eps/docannexe/image/9838/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 134k
Titre Figure 2. Rowley’s (1970) Map of ‘Colonial and Settled Australia’.
Crédits Source: Rowley [1970: 377].
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eps/docannexe/image/9838/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Figure 3. Distribution of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous populations, 2016.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eps/docannexe/image/9838/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 4. Diagrammatic Representation of Indigenous Migration Flows, 2011-2016.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/eps/docannexe/image/9838/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 158k
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Sarah Prout Quicke, « Settler-Colonial Spatial Logics and Indigenous internal (non)Migration in Australia », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/1-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eps/9838 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/eps.9838

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Auteur

Sarah Prout Quicke

Department of Geography and Planning
The University of Western Australia
35 Hackett Dr, Crawley
Western Australia
6009
sarah.proutquicke@uwa.edu.au

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