Background: The Indigenous population of Australia suffers considerable disadvantage across a wide range of socio-economic indicators, and is therefore the focus of many policy initiatives attempting to ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, past population estimates have proved unreliable as denominators for these indicators. The aim of the paper is to contribute more robust estimates for the Northern Territory Indigenous population for the period 1966–2011, and hence estimate one of the most important of socio-economic indicators, life expectancy at birth.
Method: A consistent time series of population estimates from 1966 to 2011, based off the more reliable 2011 official population estimates, was created by a mix of reverse and forward cohort survival. Adjustments were made to ensure sensible sex ratios and consistency with recent birth registrations. Standard life table methods were employed to estimate life expectancy. Drawing on an approach from probabilistic forecasting, confidence intervals surrounding population numbers and life expectancies were estimated.
Results: The Northern Territory Indigenous population in 1966 numbered between 23,800 and 26,100, compared to between 66,100 and 73,200 in 2011. In 1966–71 Indigenous life expectancy at birth lay between 49.1 and 56.9 years for males and between 49.7 and 57.9 years for females, whilst by 2006–11 it had increased to between 60.5 and 66.2 years for males and between 65.4 and 70.8 for females. Over the last 40 years the gap with all-Australian life expectancy has not narrowed, fluctuating at about 17 years for both males and females. Whilst considerable progress has been made in closing the gap in under-five mortality, at most other ages the mortality rate differential has increased.
Conclusions: A huge public health challenge remains. Efforts need to be redoubled to reduce the large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.