What does the 2016 census reveal about Pacific Islands communities in Australia?

Beach Comber Island, Fiji (Ben Angel/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)
Beach Comber Island, Fiji (Ben Angel/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)
Written by James Batley

The release of the 2016 Australian national census data allows comparisons with data from the 2006 and 2011 censuses. What do the data reveal about Pacific Islander communities in Australia?

The following analysis is derived from census data on individuals claiming Pacific Islands ancestry (categorised by the ABS as Micronesian, Melanesian and Papuan, and Polynesian).[i] It does not include persons claiming New Zealand (including Māori) ancestry nor does it include persons claiming Fiji-Indian ancestry.[ii] Following the ABS taxonomy, Fiji is included in the Polynesian category. This analysis draws on ancestry rather than place of birth statistics as the latter captures only first generation migrants, rather than the totality of multi-generational ‘Pacific Islander’ communities, and may also include the children of expatriates born in Pacific Island countries who do not identify as persons of Pacific Islands ancestry. In addition, as noted by Pryke, place of birth data masks the role of New Zealand as a waystation for migration to Australia from countries such as Tonga, Samoa and Cook Islands.

What are the headline trends?

1. The number of people in Australia claiming Pacific Islands ancestry (excluding Māori) is growing strongly both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total population (Figure 1). Those claiming Pacific Islands ancestry went from 112,133 in 2006 to 150,068 in 2011 to 206,673 in 2016. (The number of those claiming Māori heritage is a further 128,430 on top of this.) As a proportion of the total population of Australia this group went from 0.56% in 2006 to 0.69% in 2011 to 0.88% in 2016.

Figure 1: Growth in population claiming Pacific ancestry

Figure 1: Growth in population claiming Pacific ancestry

Source for all data: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

2. The rate of increase of people claiming Pacific ances­try is much higher than for the total population (Figure 2). The Australian population increased by 8.3% between 2006 and 2011, and by 8.8% between 2011 and 2016. By contrast, the population of those claiming Pacific Islands ancestry grew by 33.8% between 2006 and 2011, and by 37.7% between 2011 and 2016. And although the numbers are much smaller, the growth in those claiming Pacific ancestry is on a par with the rate of increase in people claiming Chinese ancestry over the same period, although lower than the rate of increase in people claiming Indian ancestry.

Figure 2: Percentage increase Australia vs selected groups

Figure 2: Percentage increase Australia vs selected groups

3. Polynesia (including Fiji) remains by far the largest source of origin among the Australian population claiming Pacific ancestry. Moreover, the population of those claiming Polynesian ancestry is growing faster than other Pacific groups. Those claiming Polynesian ancestry (not including Māori) have grown by 90% since 2006, and numbered 181,904 at the 2016 census. By contrast, the Melanesian and Micronesian populations (now 23,102 and 1667 respectively) have grown by 51.6% and 50.4% respectively over the same period, and both off low bases. This means that the Polynesian community is growing larger as a proportion of the total Australian population (confirming a trend observed by Pryke in discussing the 2011 census), but also that the share of people claiming Polynesian ancestry among all people claiming Pacific ancestry is growing (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Change in percentage composition of persons claiming Pacific ancestry

Figure 3: Change in percentage composition of persons claiming Pacific ancestry

4. New South Wales is home to the largest population of people claiming Pacific ancestry, with just over 38% of the total, followed closely by Queensland with 34%. In NSW, western Sydney (Blacktown) and south-western Sydney see the highest concentrations of people claiming Pacific ancestry; in Queensland, the highest numbers are recorded in the Ipswich– Logan–Gold Coast–Beaudesert area south of Brisbane.

5. Finally, those claiming Samoan ancestry remain easily the largest single group among people claiming Pacific Islands ancestry, more indeed than Fiji even when Fiji Indians are included. The population claiming Samoan ancestry now numbers over 75,000, dwarfing figures for those claiming ancestry from Australia’s much closer neighbours Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (18,802, 1883 and 956 respectively).

These are only the broadest trends observable from a comparison of the 2016 census data with that of 2011 and 2006. Clearly, much more detailed analysis is possible, and desirable, across a wide range of variables.

It should be noted that not all those who claim Pacific Islands ancestry may necessarily identify as part of a ‘Pacific Islands community’. Conversely, informal contact with Pacific community representatives suggests that there may be an element of under-reporting in the census; something that is suggested in, for instance, a Queensland report on Pacific Islander and Māori health needs. Accepting those caveats, what is striking about the census figures is less the strong growth in the number of those claiming Pacific ancestry in Australia than the relatively small number of those claiming Melanesian ancestry relative to those claiming Polynesian ancestry. It is striking indeed that fewer than 19,000 people in Australia claim ancestry from our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, or that fewer than 1000 people claim ancestry from Vanuatu. (This is all the more remarkable given UN population estimates for Melanesia of around 10 million compared to less than 700,000 for Polynesia.) The Australian Government is investing in better people-to-people links between Australia and the Pacific. If there is any link between settler communities in Australia and Australia’s soft power in the Pacific (and this is admittedly a link that is poorly understood) then the 2016 census figures should give the government pause, and much food for thought.

Figure 4: Growth in Pacific Islanders in Australia

Note: Categories used in this table are those used by the ABS in the census.

James Batley is a Distinguished Policy Fellow with the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program. This post was originally published as SSGM In Brief 2017/23.


[i] The census codes ancestry using the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups (ASCCEG), 2016.

[ii] Data on persons claiming Fiji-Indian ancestry were reported separately in the 2011 and 2016 censuses, but not in 2006, making this group’s inclusion in cross-census comparisons difficult.

James Batley

James Batley joined Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 1984. In the early part of his career he was posted to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. From 1997-1999 he was Australia’s High Commissioner to Solomon Islands. During this time he also served two terms as the senior Australian civilian member of the Bougainville Truce Monitoring Group and the Bougainville Peace Monitoring Group. From 1999-2002 he was the head of Australia’s diplomatic mission in East Timor, becoming Australia’s first Ambassador to East Timor following that country’s independence in 2002. From 2004-2006 he served as the leader of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and from 2007-2009 he was Australian High Commissioner to Fiji (and Permanent Representative to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat). In Canberra Mr Batley worked in a range of senior positions including Deputy Director-General of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). He is currently a Distinguished Policy Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra.

1 Comment

  • Sound analysis with strong punchline/conclusion that gives thought to the hidden/not-so-hidden effect of the apparently diminishing Australian interest in Pacific affairs. Sort of explains, at least in part, why China, ever the opportunist (not that there is anything wrong in exploiting opportunities) has gained so much ground/traction in our region, and all the benefits that come with it. There is prima farcie evidence of the effect of Australia’s soft power in the Pacifc – Australia is seen as a long-term friend in need, and more trustworthy/reliable (at least by the people, if not some of the leaders). Australia is not seen as a short-term opportunist; e.g.; does not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or readily shakes hands with coupist/dictators, or strikes business deals with them, for the sake of political/diplomatic expediency alone. Same cannot be said for China. Australia is not seen as faultless or as a Mother Teresa, but safe to say it is more trusted than China. Trust and respect was hard earned over many years through various programs, including Radio Australia’s Pacific service, valued for its editorial independence. While Australia is shutting down broadcasts, a relatively cost-efficient soft power strategy, China is opening up Confucius Centres all over the place – at far greater cost! Perhaps Australia needs to change its attitude and return to the days when it’s Pacific strategy was based on ‘enlightened self-interet’ rather than view the Pacific as a basket case only. To state the obvious, Aid s many things with many outcomes. It’s not just a handout. It’s also an investment in the future. Everyone in the pond benefits from a democratically stable Pacific.

Leave a Comment