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Measuring and Analysing the Wellbeing of Australia’s Indigenous Population

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According to most standard socioeconomic indicators (for example employment, income and education), Indigenous Australians tend to have worse outcomes than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Most objective health indicators including life expectancy also tend to be worse. Traditionally, these two domains and associated objective indicators have been the focus of research, government policy and evaluation. There has been less research, however, on differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in subjective measures of wellbeing. In this paper, I attempt to answer three related research questions on Indigenous wellbeing—What is the average level of emotional wellbeing and satisfaction with life for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population of Australia? How do the differences between the two populations change once other characteristics have been controlled for? What are the factors associated with emotional wellbeing within the Indigenous population? With regards to the first two questions, Indigenous Australians are less likely to report frequent periods of happiness and more likely to report periods of extreme sadness than the non-Indigenous population. Surprisingly, given these results for emotional wellbeing, a major finding from the analysis was that Indigenous Australians were significantly more likely to report above-average satisfaction with their life. The main finding with regards to the third question is that using retrospective measures, those in remote areas report higher levels of happiness than those in non-remote areas. This is different to the results for socioeconomic status and objective measures of health found elsewhere and has important implications for government policy in Australia.

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Fig. 1


  1. Australia has a federal system with three layers of government—the Commonwealth Government, State/Territory government and local government. COAG is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia, comprising the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association—see

  2. The six targets are: close the life expectancy gap within a generation; halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade; ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous 4 years olds in remote communities within 5 years; halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade; halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates by 2020, and halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade.

  3. HILDA is Australia’s largest household-based panel study, commencing in 2001 ( Indigenous Australians have not been oversampled in the HILDA, nor did the initial sample selection extend to remote Australia, where a disproportionately high proportion of Indigenous Australians live.

  4. The 2008 NATSISS is the third in a series of population surveys specifically focused on the Indigenous Australian population (with previous surveys undertaken in 1994 and 2002). The NATSISS is an omnibus survey, meaning that information is collected across a range of topics without too much detail on any one topic. The 2008 NATSISS is cross-sectional, with information collected on 7,823 Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over. There was also a child component to the survey, but this did not have any information on subjective wellbeing.

  5. Personal and equivalised household income were included separately (in log form) in two additional Models 3 and 4. Neither was found to be significant for either dependent variable. Given the potentially endogenous relationship between income and some of the other variables and the fact that it was not significant in a simple specification, the relationship between income and emotional wellbeing for the Indigenous population is left for future analysis.

  6. The CDEP scheme is an Indigenous-specific program whereby communities agree to forego unemployment benefits in exchange for roughly equivalent wages on community-controlled development projects. In official statistics, those in the CDEP scheme are classed as employed rather than unemployed. The scheme (which commenced in the late 1970s) has recently been closed to new entrants and, at the time of writing, had a very uncertain status.


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Funding for this paper was received from the Australian Ministerial Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. The author would like to thank Ms. Gillian Cosgrove for editorial assistance.

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Correspondence to Nicholas Biddle.



See Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3 Individual measures of wellbeing and factors assumed to be associated with them—HILDA 2008
Table 4 Individual and household/community measures of wellbeing and factors assumed to be associated with them—NATSISS 2008

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Biddle, N. Measuring and Analysing the Wellbeing of Australia’s Indigenous Population. Soc Indic Res 116, 713–729 (2014).

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