The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Standard Indigenous Question (SIQ) uses a question about ‘origin’ to collect data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A 2014 review found strong support among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders for a question focusing on cultural identity, rather than origin. However the ABS retained the origin question to preserve data continuity. In contrast, an Australian infuenza-like illness surveillance system, FluTracking, has included the question: “Do you identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?” for the past 8 years. Brief consultations found that Aboriginal health professionals and academics preferred the ‘identify’ question as a more accurate descriptor of social realities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities. Statistical collections could adapt to improve the quality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data, and seek to refect reality, not define it.
Objectives: To ascertian whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prefer being asked whether they ‘identify’ as Aborigonal and/or Torres Strait Islander, or if they are of Aboriginal and/or Tores Strait Islander ‘origin'.
Importance of study: Good quality and reliable data on Aboriginal people are valuable for the development of policies that are designed to improve the health status of Aboriginal people and to assess the effectiveness of public health programs.
Study type: Internal and external consultation
Methods: The authors conducted a brief internal and external consultation about questions regarding Aboriginal status with approximately 10 Aboriginal health professionals in the Hunter New England Local Health District Health Protection team, as well as a number of Aboriginal academics and public health practitioners in northern NSW and QLD. Consultation took place in 2017. Participants were asked via email if they preferred the FluTracking ‘identify’ question or the ABS SIQ ‘origin’ question.
Results: The consultation revealed that the identify question used by FluTracking was preferred by the majority of participants. The identify question addresses current, rather than historical, social and cultural factors that mediate infuenza infection and severity of infection. Extended family networks mediate both the transmission of infectious diseases and the need for culturally appropriate disease control responses. Respondents to the brief consultation considered that the identify question had a deeper meaning that refected an individual’s personal journey, nature of being, and pride in their cultural identity. An individual’s identity is interconnected to the cultural dimensions of spirituality, language, tradition, and sense of belonging to family, community and country.Identity goes far beyond just having an ancestral link as the origin questions implies.
Conclusion: Although it will be challenging, statistical collections can adapt to improve the quality of Aboriginal data. If identity, rather than origin, is the more useful epidemiological or sociological determinant, there should be a transition to this question. The ABS could ensure historical relevance of prior data collections by documenting the relative proportion of response to an ‘origin’ and ‘identity’ question within the same cohort. This would assist adjustment between the two defnitions over time. The ABS, as a custodian and curator of national statistical data, is necessarily a conservative institution with a commitment to historical consistency of defnitions and data. However, ABS data collections should seek to refect reality not define it. To ignore the reality of fuid and evolving selfidentifcation is to ignore, and depart from, reality.
- A 2014 review of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Standard Indigenous Question found that a question focused on cultural identity was more strongly supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders than the standard ‘origin’ question. The ABS maintained its ‘origin’ question to preserve data continuity.
- Brief consultations with Aboriginal health professionals and academics found that they preferred a question focused on identity, such as that used by illness surveillance system FluTracking, as a more accurate descriptor of social realities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
- Statistical collections could adapt to using an identity question to improve the quality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data and seek to refect reality, rather than define it