Between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, 129,649 people “newly identified” as Aboriginal. There might be up-to-date figures after the 2021 census. Aboriginality is so popular that I imagine newly-identifying is continuing or accelerating. Some academics think so too.
New Identifiers’ motives have never been seriously examined. The first published study was by Watt and Kowal 2018, and that involved only 33 New Identifiers.
Many New Identifiers gain profound benefit from re-connecting with their Aboriginality. Many were separated from their heritage two or three generations back, largely for welfare and education reasons, and traumatised by the loss of family. Other New Identifiers are whites who persist although they cannot point to any Aboriginal ancestor. The most famous of these currently is Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe, who told the New York Times enigmatically last August that he was both “solidly Cornish” and “solidly Aboriginal”.
Woke folk take to Aboriginality like ducks to water, or should that be chooks? Here’s one case study from a 1996 Griffith MA thesis by Fiona Noble (p36):
I was just different, really different, in that all the animals were my friends and I used to spend hours in the chook yard talking to my chooks, because like they were the only ones who understood anything that I was feeling or that I was thinking, but I felt very isolated and lonely growing up and always in my whole life just searching and wondering who I was.
Compared with Australia, in NZ there has been much less contribution to Maori population from New Identifiers. And in the US and Canada, New Identifiers have to overcome major legal and social barriers, with native organisations calling the newcomers gold-diggers, ethnic frauds, culture-vultures, “pretendians”, New Age poseurs, cultists and wannabes. A classic case is Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren (Democrat, Massachusetts), who got a career leg-up and much kudos for her claimed Cherokee ancestry, until DNA testing suggested she was from 0.097% to 0.156% American Indian, about the same as Americans generally. Her great-grandfather was not a Cherokee as she claimed. but a white man who boasted of shooting a Cherokee. An equally famous US case is Rachel Dolezal, who became president of a Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an instructor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. Her two white parents outed her in 2015.
THIS essay is in three phases. It first covers the Australian data based on an ANU study by Nicholas Biddle and Francis Markham, then explores the Watt and Kowal material , and then looks at how Australian life can be viewed through a racial lens, as illustrated by Professor Kowal herself.
There are good reasons why New Identifiers are a hot-potato topic, in white and Aboriginal society alike. For example, In Tasmania the Aboriginal population soared from 671 in 1971 to 19,625 in 2016. Long-established Aboriginals there claim they’re being overrun by New Identifiers with specious genealogies.
The New Identifiers are concentrated in Australia’s urban south-east, and the workings of federal-state tax formulas drain funds from the Northern Territory, where Aboriginal disadvantage is extreme. In NSW and Victoria, some New Identifiers are mopping up cushy government-funded jobs reserved for Aborigines.
The more healthy, educated and well-off New Identifiers are also making the “Closing the Gap” data look better than the reality of outback Aboriginal life. New Identifiers in the south-east get official encouragement and plaudits from the woke community on the basis that Aboriginal links were broken in the “Stolen Generations” era. Moreover, challenging a New Identifier is a dangerous move. For example, university or public service bureaucrats who deal with Aboriginal applicants for places or privileges could be deemed racist and have their careers cancelled if they require evidence from the applicants about their Aboriginality.
From the ANU study, the 129,649 New Identifiers at 2016 were somewhat offset by 45,042 Aborigines (at 2011) doing the opposite – citing themselves as white in 2016. The net number of at least 84,607 was still greater than from natural increase and equal to 13.7 per cent of the 2011 Aboriginal population. Assessing flows of “New Identifiers” in 2016 shows the highest number and rate in the babies-to-age-15 group – 17 per cent vs the 14 per cent total. The flow falls among adults but rises slightly among those over 65.
Nearly all New Identifiers hail from the cities and regions – only 3507 were from remote Australia. Victoria, ACT and NSW were over-represented and WA and NT under-represented.
Michael Connor: The white Aborigines trial
New Identifiers in 2016 had higher living standards than the always-Aboriginal. Their employment rate was 60 per cent vs about 50 per cent for traditionals. The Prime Minister’s Department in 2018 failed to allow for this and claimed Aboriginal employment was slightly improving. In fact employment rates for traditional Aboriginals actually fell from 2011-16.
The ANU authors say there is no evidence from the data that identifying as Aboriginal leads to the claimants becoming better off. In fact their employment fell slightly. The motivation seems instead to relate to social and family reasons, they say: “In no way do we suggest that there should be any intervention to reduce identification change – on the contrary, to the extent that a reluctance to identify is due to discrimination, this should be seen as a positive development.”
Deakin researchers Elizabeth Watt and Emma Kowal say other researchers are reluctant to explore the New Identifier phenomenon lest deplorables like Andrew Bolt and his racist or “mean-spirited” followers make hay with the findings. The comment is interesting as I thought academics bravely pursued truth whatever the consequences. Bolt was successfully taken to court by nine fair-skinned Aboriginals in 2011 under S18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. They claimed Bolt had argued they “were not genuinely Aboriginal and were pretending to be Aboriginal so they could access benefits that are available to Aboriginal people.”
Judge Mordy Bromberg also banned republication of Bolt’s articles, and the ban continues to this day.
One of the nine fair-skinned Aboriginals was artist Bindi Cole who announced seven years later:
One of my identities is Aboriginal. I can’t stop thinking Aboriginal. I am what I am. But when I made this my sole identity it was confusing because I am also white so I was both Aboriginal victim and white oppressor. And then being female I was oppressed by the patriarchy. It was always kinds of ways of identifying that meant I was victim to so many different things that I didn’t actually have to take any responsibility whatsoever for myself or my behaviours. I could constantly blame everything and everyone else.” She continued that her role in the Bolt 18c court case was her first exposure to conservative ideas after life lived in a leftist bubble where she could be a social justice warrior and virtue signaller, constantly looking down intolerantly on all others with different views. “The more I read the more I realised I had been on the wrong side.”
Anyway Watt/Kowal say that some of the stories from New Identifiers collected in their article would
no doubt provide fodder for Bolt and his followers. While taking this risk seriously, however, we strongly feel that the fear of conservative co-option should not deter research conducted with respect, quality scholarship and in good faith. (emphasis added)
The Watt/Kowal paper looks at motives from interviews of 33 New Identifiers. Eleven interviews were by Fiona Noble in the unpublished Master’s thesis at Griffith University way back in 1996. Noble had an inside track as she herself late in life thought she had Aboriginal ancestry and recruited informants through her own group of “Brisbane inner city ‘alternative’ and feminist communities” (Watt/Kowal p66). Watt/Kowal say social trends “have created an environment where people are encouraged to both “choose” their own
ethnic identity and to experience this chosen identity as given, essential and fixed. Our research also affirms North American findings that, for those making this choice, White identities have lost appeal relative to Indigenous identities because of wider awareness of colonial injustice, an increased emphasis on autochthony, and the rise of environmentalism and holistic spiritualism.
Watt says she has Scottish-German origins and Kowal, Polish-Jewish. They write,
Both authors are female anthropologists who identify as White Australians … but whose research has focused on Indigenous issues… Some may take the view that, as non-indigenous people, we should not pursue research on the sensitive topic of Indigenous identification – or, for that matter, any topic relating to Indigenous people. However, we believe that empirically-informed discussions about this subject will be useful to Indigenous communities that are currently dealing with its implications. We also intend to address the vacuum in Australia’s broader public debate surrounding this issue: a vacuum that has been readily filled with the polemical voices of right-wing commentators.
Take “right-wing commentators” as a reference to Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson.
A Queensland interviewee said: “We’re talking about what’s the oldest culture on this planet. We still have genetic memory.” A NSW woman believed she was a product of her grandmother’s affair with an Indigenous man, and used similar language: “Heritage is something that runs in your blood. It’s not necessarily how your skin comes out all the time either, how you look. It’s in your DNA down deep in there somewhere”. A third spoke of Indigenous ancestry as the “spark” or “consciousness” within their body, stressing: “You can’t get it out of your system. If you’re an Aboriginal, you’re an Aboriginal.”
Many “always felt different” from White Australians. One interviewee, who was told when she was 15 that her great grandmother was an Indigenous woman, described how she grew up in a “sort of glorified shack in the bush” in semi-rural area of Brisbane with her six olive-skinned, brown haired siblings, and never felt at home among the “blond, blue eyed girls” who lived “in a brick house, with carpet and a carport” and were “sleek and shiny”.
Some cited life-long connections to animals, “the land”, “country” or the “bush”, embodying their ancestors. Others had deep interests in Indigenous culture or people. One noted:
I have been drawn to the stories and art of the Aboriginal people since I was a small child. Now I know why … Whenever I hear about the atrocities of the past I really hurt deep inside. I never had that feeling when hearing about the European atrocities and death.
One woman described a “magnet dragging me to La Perouse”, and a man explained how “strange” it was that “I used to pester my father, my parents, on a weekend to go for a drive over to La Perouse”. 
But a NSW interviewee who believed his grandmother was of Wiradjuri descent, didn’t identify that way:
Well, only to the extent that I ever identified with Aborigines all around Australia. As political allies and friends … [Identifying as an Indigenous person] has that danger of suggesting that blood links you, and I don’t accept that. My upbringing has been totally European.
Another described late identification as a “big farce”, explaining “I couldn’t possibly say that I was Aboriginal, because I haven’t suffered anything that Aboriginal people have”. Another claimed, “to stand up now and say, ‘Look I’m Aboriginal’, to me is like a little bit rude almost, because you’ve never been treated in the world as Aboriginal”.
Another complained of New Identifiers who have been brought up as White people all their lives:
They’ve never experienced any discrimination an Aboriginal person would feel … They’ve been identified by white people and then they turn around and say, “I’m an Aboriginal I know how Aboriginal people feel”. That really pisses me off, and I am sure that’s a real insult to Aboriginal people who have to try and struggle for their rights.
One attraction for New Identifiers is that they have been persuaded that whiteness has been downgraded culturally because of pluralism, anti-colonialism and holistic spirituality. “White is now commonly seen [by researchers] as ‘dull, empty, lacking, and incomplete’ … associated with ‘white bread and mayonnaise’, ‘guilt, loneliness, isolation’, either ‘bland nothingness’ or ‘racial hatred’”.
Subjects have been encouraged by interviewers’ Rousseau-like view of indigenous people who harmonised with nature.Thus
White Australians of a certain inclination can embark on ‘solo-dreaming’ – engaging with the land and evoking the spirits seen to lie within it. Yet this process is complicated for ‘White anti-racists’ because of their sensitivity to claims of appropriation and abuse of Indigenous culture. This tension has prompted many to search for Indigenous ancestors in their family tree, hoping this discovery would explain and validate their existing feelings of connection to Indigenous culture and people.
Many interviewees began searching for Aboriginal ancestors after hints, such as a family Bible with a mission address. “These searches were often fruitless, but many interviewees continued to identify as Indigenous regardless. These New Identifiers’ attachment to their Indigenous identity was sufficiently high, and their conceptualisations of ethnicity sufficiently subjective, to overcome the lack of material evidence.”
Some espoused New Age notions. As a Sydney interviewee put it
I see straight through materialism and don’t adhere to forced social conventions such as Christmas. I believe in sharing, community and compassion for the earth and human kind at its best. In other words, there is enough for everybody on this planet and no place for greed … Living simply, looking after family, and caring for our Mother Earth for me is what defines my Aboriginality.
Some interviewees had stumbled across strong evidence of their Aboriginality but declined to accept the identity.
These differing motivations help explain why we observed an inverse relationship between the strength of evidence and strength of identification: those with the weakest evidence tended to have the strongest convictions, and vice versa. (emphasis added)
The final phase of my essay is the insights from Kowal about what it’s like diving into the maelstrom of racial politics. Kowal is a highly-rated academic who has received $6m worth of grants and authored 100+ papers and books.
WITH a privileged middle-class upbringing, Ms Kowal decided in high school to fight for “the oppressed people of the world” by air-mailing protest letters and joining activists. “In 1996 at the Canberra protests against the Howard government’s first budget, it dawned on me that, as an Australian, the gap of Aboriginal disadvantage was the one that should trouble me most,” she writes.
Graduating from Melbourne University as a medico, she packed a second-hand Toyota and drove it north to her new life as intern at Royal Darwin Hospital. She later figured public health research in the NT was the most fulfilling and joined a Darwin research institute. But there was disillusionment in store. Staff enjoyed power plays and in-fighting rather than cooperation; government programs promoted as panaceas turned out to be dubious on the inside; and staff loved to criticise others’ projects as disempowering or racist without offering any help themselves.
Much “closing the gap” effort was actually channelled into “creating and maintaining racialised identities.” Anyone walking in the front door to the “indigenous” research institute would be smartly categorised as Indigenous or non-Indigenous, and sub-categorised as “community” or “urban”. The whites could be classified “red-necks” or “anti-racists”, or “white” or “non-white and non-Indigenous”. Someone not known to insiders could be parked as “possibly Indigenous”, pending investigation. Maintaining identities was hard work: for example whites had to keep up the auru of a “good” white rather than an “ignorant, exploitive racist White person”. The main internal drive was for Aboriginal control of affairs: “The tendency to demonise white researchers in particular seemed an inadequate way to explain the situation, once I had got to know many of them and of course become one myself.”
What she calls “the moral politics of race and identity” became toxic. A question about Aboriginal pay rates could be interpreted as managers being exploitive or racist. White researchers involved with presentations to the public had to edit themselves out of videos and stand aside silently to let Aborigines make presentations. If an Aborigine’s facts were wrong, Whites wouldn’t contradict, and went along with exaggerations of Aboriginal inputs. Kowal wrote in her journal, “In the political world of Indigenous health we don’t have arguments, we have positions. And the position of the ‘authentic Aboriginal voice’ trumps even the most eloquent argument, and has no need for it.”
She found “closing the health gap” to be a minefield. The health gap could suggest continued colonial oppression but fixing it could undermine traditional, but unhealthy, ways of life. It could “leave White anti-racists concerned that their efforts to improve the health and social status of Indigenous people might be furthering the neo-colonial expansion of bio-political norms.” White anti-racist health workers might be tarred as no better than “racist bureaucrats and missionaries of the past.”
In another paper, Welcome to Country Acknowledgement, Belonging and White Anti-racism, Kowal dives deeper into the predicaments of Whiteness:
In my reading of Whiteness studies, there is no way for anti-racists to act without reinforcing their privilege…
The acceptable modes of action for White anti-racist subjectivities are silence and experiencing the discomfort and self-loathing of being the source of pain for others without seeking relief or resolution…
My view is that silent and suffering anti-racist subjectivities may be appropriate and useful for academics, but they are incompatible with effective work in Indigenous affairs. The even larger wager of this article is that silent, suffering anti-racist subjectivities that don’t belong are not up to the prodigious task of charting paths to coexistence in this settler society.
She has studied how white anti-racists act both in front of the public at seminars, conferences and publications, and backstage, i.e. in tearooms, corridors, back verandas and closed talk. In this backstage, “group members can refine the performance without the pressure of staying in character…
For instance, at front of house, the number of Indigenous presenters at an event should be at least equal to the number of non-indigenous presenters—a stage full of White people discussing Indigenous issues is a bad look. Though, if some of the people on stage that appear White are in fact Indigenous, any overt, whispered or unspoken criticism from the audience is not a concern, as any such criticism simply portrays the critic as ignorant at best, and racist at worst, for assuming that a pale-skinned person is not Indigenous. Non-indigenous dark-skinned people are intermediate in their visual impact—better than a White person, but not as good as an Indigenous person. Indigenous men and Indigenous women should be equally represented. The appearance of White women on stage is generally slightly better than White men…
“Making explicit this knowledge of ‘how to be an anti-racist’ seems distasteful in print, although it is acceptable to talk of these things, if somewhat obliquely, in conference planning meetings. The techniques required to privilege Indigenous voices are employed tacitly on the backstage and are not for consumption by a public audience.
She notes that it is often hard to get good Aboriginal speakers because they are in such high demand and the job is usually honorary. A properly balanced cast of speakers might be organised, but then the key Aboriginal speakers might fail to turn up or leave abruptly. The organiser will then remark about “family” or “cultural” issues, getting another opportunity to display his/her anti-racism. She instances a departure she saw of Aboriginal “Kylie”, which saw the presenter handle it tactfully.
The mainly white audience had an opportunity to not react, to not blame or judge, exhibiting their anti-racism. His [presenter’s] explicit comments acted to silence (but also, paradoxically, highlight through demonstrating the need to silence) the ideas that are certainly not voiced, and perhaps barely thought: musings about whether Kylie really had a family emergency, or perhaps was disorganised enough to be double-booked, or behind in her paid work, or offended at being asked to be a ‘token black’ by the organisers, or maybe she had a gambling habit and went off to the casino. Some of these imaginings would have raised the possibility that her absence was a snub to the organisers, undermining their implicit claims to have meaningful relationships with Indigenous people. Because if they did, Kylie would care enough to stick around. It was this smoulder of inchoate musings that necessitated the facilitator’s careful words. (emphasis added)
At another workshop, a white male had to stand in as presenter when the booked Aborigine did not show up. The stand-in apologised for being white, especially as an Aboriginal co-facilitator had a junior role beside him.
One can only imagine that he implored her, she whose identity was better suited to the task, to read out the notes accompanying the slides instead of him when the scheduled presenter failed to turn up. But for whatever reason (lack of confidence? lack of familiarity with the material? resentment she was being asked just because she was Indigenous?), she had declined.
I hope Australia doesn’t dissolve into a hotbed of racial claimants and discord. There’s not much corroboration these days of the “We are one” jingle perpetually played on the ABC, or of “Australians all” in our national anthem, which is a bit of a dirge anyway.
Tony Thomas’s new book, Come To Think Of It – essays to tickle the brain, is available here as a book ($34.95) or an e-book ($14.95)
 “We have no reason to expect that the process of identification change will not continue into the future.”
 Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – the Stolen Generations, Macleay, Sydney 2004, counts the numbers of Aboriginal children removed from their parents for all reasons nationally between 1880 and 1970 as 8250. That’s about 90 a year, including orphans, the destitute, the neglected and those given up voluntarily by parents. The small numbers leave small scope for any “stolen generation” national genocide involving a total 50,000-100,000 forcible removals.
 Warren even submitted recipes to a Native American cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” which was released in 1984 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Okla. She signed her entries “Elizabeth Warren — Cherokee.”
 “Indigenous Identification Change Between 2011 And 2016: Evidence From The Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset.” Authors are from the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.CAEPR TOPICAL ISSUE NO. 1/2018
An ABS spokesperson tells Quadrant:
“The 2021 Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset (ACLD) analytical outputs are expected to be released during the second half of 2023.
In September 2019, the ABS Centre of Excellence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (CoATSIS) published new analysis regarding identification as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in the Census over time. This analysis is available on the ABS website.
 They say theirs is the first such published study: “Existing sociological research is more concerned with politically defending identification changes than sociologically analyzing them.”
 Windschuttle, in The Break-Up of Australia (Quadrant, Sydney 2016, p113) cites the case of actor and Aboriginal elder Jack Charles, who applied to the Australia Council for a book-writing grant. When the Council applied its protocol and asked him to prove his Aboriginality, he created a cause celebre and an embarrassed Council thereafter dropped its requirement for proofs involving Aboriginality. In another case a white male author, Leon Carmen, who couldn’t get published, submitted his book to Magabala Books as a young Aboriginal woman “Wanda Koolmatrie” and it won prizes and was put on the NSW Board of Studies High School Reading List. No-one had checked his “Aboriginal” identity or even sighted him. Ibid p114.
 The data are from an anonymised sample of 23,059 people who identified in 2016 as Aboriginal, with links to the 2011 census.
 Mordy Bromberg J concluded: I have observed that in seeking to promote tolerance and protect against intolerance in a multicultural society, the Racial Discrimination Act must be taken to include in its objectives tolerance for and acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity. At the core of multiculturalism is the idea that people may identify with and express their racial or ethnic heritage free from pressure not to do so. People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance.
He banned republication of the Bolt articles, and added:
It is important that nothing in the orders I make should suggest that it is unlawful for a publication to deal with racial identification, including by challenging the genuineness of the identification of a group of people. I have not found Mr Bolt and the Herald & Weekly Times to have contravenedsection 18C, simply because the newspaper articles dealt with subject matter of that kind. I have found a contravention of the Racial Discrimination Act because of the manner in which that subject matter was dealt with.
 “Nativeness by virtue of originating or occurring naturally (as in a particular place)”
 La Perouse is a Sydney former Aboriginal reserve and continued to have a large Aboriginal population.