Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith last week proposed a moratorium on immigration to give Australia some time to “breathe” and take stock. Claiming concerns over planning and infrastructure failing to meet population needs, Smith signalled Australia was unprepared, having relied on inaccurate population projections.
Immigration is often targeted when population levels seem out of control. But will a moratorium give Australia the supposed breathing space it needs?
Concerns about immigration and a perceived population crisis have crossed over the spectrum of Australian politics. One Nation’s Pauline Hanson has called for a plebiscite on immigration, while Labor leader Bill Shorten has raised concerns about the number of temporary migrants in Australia.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said a cut to immigration numbers would have economic benefits, contradicting Treasurer Scott Morrison. And Smith’s idea to halt immigration to allow the nation’s infrastructure time to catch up with population demand is shared by prominent public figures, including Bob Carr and Dick Smith.
Australia’s population is ageing, which has potential adverse consequences for the future as proportionally more people exit the workforce, increasing reliance on a shrinking income taxpayer base. Immigration has the potential to offset these consequences of population ageing by contributing to the workforce and to government funds for essential services. Migrants also contribute to Australia’s future population by having children.
The latest available research suggests immigration levels at “about 160,000 and 210,000 seem to have the ‘best’ impact by 2050 on ageing of the population and the rate of growth of GDP per capita”.
Based on 2011 census data, and medium-range assumptions for fertility and life expectancy, the 2013 (medium range) projections are tracking well with current estimates. These projections provide an indication of the impact of migration, measured as net overseas migration. Net overseas migration reflects the balance of incoming and outgoing movements and includes both permanent and temporary migration.
The four ABS scenarios show varying population numbers over the medium to long term. The higher the net overseas migration level, the bigger the population over the projected years. Interestingly, though, while zero net overseas migration would result in a reduction in population by the year 2070, the population would still continue to grow in the medium term due to natural increase (births minus deaths).
Population composition is an important indicator to consider, rather than size alone. Age distribution is essential to understanding the fiscal opportunities and challenges a population faces.
Comparing the four net overseas migration scenarios illustrates the important contribution migration makes to Australia. The so-called dependency burden – the ratio of the number of children (0-14
years old) and older people (65 years or over) to the working-age population (15-64 years old) – is higher for zero and low net migration levels.
The current rate of net migration provides the middle ground in balancing population age structure and growth.
Planners need to know expected population size and growth to ensure adequate services and provisions. The ABS has produced projections for national and sub-national populations since 1950.
Population inquiries throughout Australia’s history have consistently called on such statistics to enable the country’s responsiveness and preparedness to accommodate numbers. Australia hasn’t set any population targets, mainly to avoid coercive population measures (such as mandating birth rates) and to allow flexibility in government policy, particularly around immigration intake.
Estimating population size and growth into the future is about what might be (projection) and not what will be (forecast). So population projections are not predictions; they’re calculations of potential future populations based on assumptions about possible births, deaths and migration.
The “best-before-date” for population projections is considered to be around 5-10 years from the initial base year of calculation. This is why projections should be regularly updated based on best available population data (the census and vital statistics) to ensure assumptions reflect births, deaths and migration trends.
Australia is one part of the global community. Cutting immigration to Australia will impact the demographic composition of the country, with consequences for the working-age population and income tax base.
On Sky News, Hanson said Australia is “the highest growing country in the world”.
The senator added that at 1.6%, Australia’s population growth was “double [that of] a lot of other countries”.
Are those statements correct?
Checking the source
In response to The Conversation’s request for sources and comment, a spokesperson for Pauline Hanson said the senator “talks about population growth in the context of our high level of immigration because in recent years, immigration has accounted for around 60% of Australia’s population growth”.
World Bank data for 2017 show that Australia’s population growth was 1.6%, much higher than comparable countries with immigration programs like Canada (1.2%), the UK (0.6%) and the US (0.7%).
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson was correct to say Australia’s population grew by 1.6% in the year to June 2017. But she was incorrect to say Australia is “the highest growing country in the world”.
According to the most accurate international data, the country with the fastest growing population is Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula.
Senator Hanson said Australia’s 1.6% population growth was “double than a lot of other countries”. It is fair to say that Australia’s population growth rate is double that of many other countries, including the United States (0.7%) and United Kingdom (0.7%), for example.
Since Hanson’s statement, Australia’s population growth rate for the period ending June 2017 has been revised upwards to 1.7%. But Hanson’s number was correct at the time of her statement, and the revision doesn’t change the outcome of this FactCheck.
In terms of the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Luxemberg was the fastest growing country in 2016, with Australia coming in fifth.
Caution must be used when making international population comparisons. It’s important to put the growth rates in the context of the total size, density and demographic makeup of the population, and the economic stage of the country.
How do we calculate population growth?
A country’s population growth, or decline, is determined by the change in the estimated number of residents. Those changes include the number of births and deaths (known as natural increase), and net overseas migration.
In Australia, both temporary and permanent overseas migrants are included in the calculation of population size.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Australia’s population grew by 1.6% in the year to June 2017 – as Senator Hanson said.
Since Hanson’s statement, Australia’s population growth rate for the period ending June 2017 has been revised upwards to 1.7%. But as said in the verdict, Hanson’s number was correct at the time of her statement, and the revision doesn’t change any of the other outcomes of this FactCheck.
That’s an increase of 407,000 people in a population of 24.6 million.
All states and territories saw positive population growth in the year to June 2017, with Victoria recording the fastest growth rate (2.4%), and South Australia recording the slowest growth rate (0.6%).
How does Australia’s growth compare to other OECD countries?
Comparison of Australia’s average annual population growth with other OECD countries shows Australia’s rate of population growth is among the highest in the OECD, but not the highest.
This is true whether we look at annual averages for five year bands between 1990 and 2015, or single year data.
Looking again at the World Bank data, Australia’s rate of population growth for 2016, at 1.5%, was double that of many other OECD countries, including the United Kingdom (0.7%) and United States (0.7%).
The greatest contribution to the growth of the Australian population (63%) currently comes from overseas migration, as Hanson’s office noted in their response to The Conversation.
The origin countries of migrants are becoming more diverse, posing socioeconomic benefits and infrastructure challenges for Australia.
Sometimes people confuse net overseas migration (the total of all people moving in and out of Australia in a certain time frame), with permanent migration (the number of people who come to Australia to live). They are not the same thing.
Net overseas migration includes temporary migration. And net overseas migration is included in population data. This means our population growth reflects our permanent population, plus more.
Population changes track the history of the nation. This includes events like post-war rebuilding – including the baby boom and resettlement of displaced European nationals – to subsequent fluctuations in birth rates, and net overseas migration.
We can see these events reflected in the rates of growth from 1945 to the present.
The rate of population growth in Australia increased markedly in 2007, before peaking at 2.1% in 2009 (after the height of the global financial crisis, in which the Australian economy fared better than many others).
Since 2009, annual population growth has bounced around between a low of 1.4% and a high of 1.8%.
The longer term average for population growth rates since 1947 is 1.6% (the same as it is currently).
It’s worth remembering that a higher growth rate per annum coming from a lower population base is usually still lower growth in terms of actual numbers of people, when compared to a lower growth rate on a higher population base.
There can also be significant fluctuations in population growth rates from year to year – so we need to use caution when making assessments based on changes in annual rates.
Economic factors, government policies, and special events are just some of the things that can influence year-on-year population movements.
Other factors we should consider when making international comparisons include the:
total size of the population
demographic composition, or age distribution, of the population, and
the economic stage of the country (for example, post industrialisation or otherwise).
Any changes to the migration program should be considered alongside the best available research. – Liz Allen
The FactCheck is fair and correct.
The statement about Australia’s population growth rate over the year to June 30, 2017, is correct. The preliminary growth rate published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at the time of Senator Hanson’s statement was 1.60%; the rate was subsequently revised to 1.68%.
It is also true that many developed countries have lower population growth rates than Australia, but some have higher rates. According to United Nations Population Division population estimates, Oman had the fastest growing population between 2014 and 2015 (the latest data available).
With regards to misinterpretations of net overseas migration, it should also be stated that some people think this refers to the number of people migrating to Australia. It is actually immigration minus emigration – the difference between the number arriving and the number leaving. – Tom Wilson
The Conversation’s FactCheck unit was the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.
Have you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at email@example.com. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.
Liberal senator Dean Smith has called for a national debate about Australia’s population, as it hits the 25 million mark.
Smith, from Western Australia, said on Sunday that population issues were broader than just immigration, and included such questions as a lack of population growth in regional communities as well as congestion and infrastructure gaps in the biggest cities.
His comments are a wider take on what has become a highly charged political row, with former prime minister Tony Abbott pressing for a big cut to immigration and Pauline Hanson making advocacy of a lower migrant intake one of her signature pitches.
Smith, speaking to the ABC, pointed to the need to forecast population growth much better – previous predictions have substantially underestimated the actual speed of growth – so “we can prepare and plan better, and importantly maintain that very strong sense of public endorsement that is necessary for all of our population matters.”
He said as a senator from Perth, which had a much smaller population, “I’m interested that we get the benefits of population growth without having to pay the high price [that] perhaps Melbourne or Sydney commuters are having to pay”.
He wanted “to make sure that other cities are immune from some of the negative consequences of unbridled population growth – population growth that has been poorly predicted … poorly planned for”.
The call comes as latest figures show the annual permanent migrant intake fell to 162,400 last financial year – compared with a 190,000 planning level.
Speaking on Sky, Home Affairs Minister Petter Dutton sought to set up immigration as an election issue, and contrast the government’s approach and that of Labor.
“At the next election Bill Shorten will be promising to migrate more people to Australia than what this government is prepared to do,” he said.
“Labor got themselves into a position where at the end of the financial year they were ticking and flicking applications to get to the 190,000 target. We’ve treated the 190,000 not as a target, but as a ceiling and that’s why it has come in at 162,000 this last financial year”.
Dutton said the government was putting integrity into the program by making sure those applying through the skilled stream had the qualifications they claimed, and were not travelling on fraudulent documents. “We’ve applied a greater level of scrutiny than Labor ever did”.
“We’re not talking about the refugee and humanitarian program here.
“We’re talking about people who are coming here under the skilled program and under the family settlement, predominantly the partner visa stream. These are people that are claiming that they’re in a relationship. We’re finding cases where they’re not legitimate relationships.
“We’re finding cases where people don’t have the qualifications that they claimed that they had or the work experience that they claimed they had. If you’re bringing those people in, well clearly that is not a productive outcome for our economy.”
Smith said “moderation” of the intake was important. “We need to perhaps give ourselves some time to breathe, some time to pause and reflect, to make sure the predictions are the best they can be and if they’re not – let’s correct that. Importantly, to make sure the infrastructure spending and public confidence is maintained”.
He said there were several ways of leading the debate he advocated – such as by an “audit commission approach” or by a parliamentary inquiry.
The “tone” of such a discussion was very important. “We’ve seen in previous debates that you can have a civilised national discussion around difficult or sensitive issues if parliamentarians, if commentators get the tone right”.
Smith was one of the Liberals MPs at the forefront of the push for same- sex marriage, and he is making it clear he would like to play a prominent role on the population issue.
Citing the 2018 Lowy Institute poll, he said community sentiment was changing around population debates in a negative direction.
The poll found that for the first time, a majority of Australians (54%) oppose the current rate of immigration. This is up 14 points on last year.
“Australians also appear to be questioning the impact of immigration on the national identity,” Lowy said. It found while 54% said “Australia’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation”, a substantial 41% said “if Australia is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”
The Coalition continues to trail Labor 49-51% in two-party terms but Malcolm Turnbull has increased his Newspoll lead over Bill Shorten as better prime minister to his widest margin since before the 2016 election.
The poll, in Monday’s Australian, is the 36th consecutive Newspoll the government has lost. It comes a fortnight ahead of the July 28 Super Saturday of five byelections, with two of them – Longman and Braddon – tough contests for Labor and considered important for Shorten’s leadership.
Turnbull has a 19 point lead over Shorten as better PM – 48%-29%. Turnbull’s rating rose by 2 points; Shorten’s fell 2 points,
But on satisfaction, Turnbull lost a point, to 41%, while his dissatisfaction rating rose a point to 49%. Satisfaction with Shorten was steady on 32%, while his dissatisfaction fell a point to 56%.
Both Coalition and Labor lost a point in their primary votes. The Coalition is on 38% to Labor’s 36%. The Greens (10%) were up a point, as was One Nation (7%).
It’s not new to find politicians claiming public opinion is on their side on contentious issues. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when former New South Wales premier and foreign minister Bob Carr – who has a decades-long record of opposition to a “big Australia” – says there has been a significant shift in public opinion on the topic. But we should politely ask for his sources.
On the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night, Carr said:
The first poll I’ve seen that indicates a big shift in public attitudes … came out in recent months. It shows 74% of Australians think there is enough of us already … I find that interesting. It’s the first breakthrough … in the last 12 months, the message has sunk in.
The survey employed a commercial panel, which yields a large number of respondents but is not a random sample of the population. Of those who were Australian voters, 54% indicated the number of immigrants “should be reduced”. The survey then went on to ask several additional questions – some of which were of the leading variety.
The survey informed respondents that:
From December 2005 to December 2016 Australia’s population grew from 20.5 million to 24.4 million; 62% of this growth was from net overseas migration.
It then asked in blunt terms:
Do you think Australia needs more people?
With this wording, the proportion with a negative view of immigration (that is, Australia does not need more people) jumped to 74%. This is a clear indication of the impact of question wording and context.
A finding not supported elsewhere
Almost at the same time as this survey, in June-July 2017, the Scanlon Foundation conducted two surveys. In its annual survey, which is interviewer-administered and is a random sample of the population, the Scanlon Foundation employed a question that has been used in Australian surveying for more than 50 years and hence provides scope to track trend of opinion over time. It asked:
What do you think of the number of immigrants accepted into Australia?
It found just 37% considered the intake to be “too high”, 40% “about right”, and 16% “too low”. The proportion concerned by the level of immigration is within one percentage point of the average of ten years of Scanlon Foundation surveying. With attention narrowed to respondents who are Australian citizens (and have voting rights), there is little difference in the result.
An issue in surveying is the impact of interviewer administration. Some argue that self-administered surveys, completed online, are more reliable.
To test the impact of the mode of surveying, a set of questions was administered in a second Scanlon Foundation survey using the Life in Australia panel. The large majority of these respondents complete the survey online, without interviewer assistance, and the panel was formed using a probability process to reflect the Australian population.
The finding was almost identical with the result obtained in the first Scanlon Foundation survey: a minority – 40% – considered the intake to be “too high”.
None of these surveys obtained a majority agreeing that immigration is “too high”, much less concern at the level of 74%. The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll found 40% favour reduction.
Most surveys are consistent in finding there is a substantial minority of the view that immigration is too high, but not a large majority, as Carr claimed.
The importance of context
In evaluating survey findings, attention needs to be directed to sampling procedure (whether random or not), the question asked, the context of the question, and the record of all relevant surveys – not just one survey.
There is one additional issue of note: public controversy and claims made about the impact of immigration can shift opinion in a short time.
In 2010, in the context of political campaigning focused on immigration and “big Australia”, the Scanlon Foundation survey recorded a shift of ten percentage points in the level of concern about immigration.
Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This article is part of our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
Western Sydney is one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia. It’s also one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse, as a key arrival point for refugees and new migrants when they first settle in Australia.
Various publicfigures and media outlets have connected asylum-seeker intake and immigration to traffic congestion and queues at hospitals in Western Sydney.
However, this kind of reaction can pin the blame for infrastructure and affordability problems on culturally diverse populations who may have already lived in Australia for many years, if not several generations.
Growth from international and domestic migration
Greater Western Sydney includes Blacktown, the Blue Mountains, Camden,
Campbelltown, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Fairfield
Hawkesbury, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith, the Hills Shire and Wollondilly.
We examined census data compiled by WESTIR Ltd, a non-profit research organisation based in Western Sydney, partly funded by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. These data show that Greater Western Sydney’s population increased by 9.8% between 2011 and 2016. Over the decade from 2006 to 2016, it grew by 16%.
About 55% of those living there were born in Australia, and about 39% where born elsewhere (the remainder did not state their place of birth). Most put English or Australian as their first response when asked about their ancestry.
New births are slightly down in the region, meaning growth is coming from other sources. This includes new international migration arrivals, but also incoming residents from other parts of New South Wales and interstate.
Greater Western Sydney has long-established cultural and linguistic diversity. The percentage of residents born overseas has increased from 34.1% in 2006 to 38.7% in 2016. Overall, the west accounts for 50.2% of the overseas-born population for the whole of metropolitan Sydney.
Reasoned debates on sustainable migration intake levels are a crucial part of discussions of urban and regional growth. There are valid criticisms of “Big Australia” policies, based on resource and environmental sustainability.
But while the number of new arrivals settling in Western Sydney has increased steadily since the second world war, with a significant jump over the last decade reflecting accelerated skilled migration policies to fill labour shortages, the majority of overseas-born living in the region are long-term settlers who have been in Australia for ten years or more.
Increasing diversity does not always mean more new migrant settlers
The data show that 64% of Western Sydney residents have at least one parent born overseas. This is greater than the number of those born overseas. This correlates with national data indicating that Australian-born second-generation migrant residents outnumber those born outside of Australia.
So while critics may look at non-white Western Sydney residents and assume they are recent migrants, what they’re often really seeing is multiple generations of multiculturalism. Most of these people are long-term local residents, not necessarily a sudden influx of new arrivals.
In addition, not all overseas-born residents are permanent settlers. Australia takes far larger numbers of temporary entrants than it has in the past. Most of these temporary visa holders, such as international students and temporary skilled workers, live in major metropolitan areas and their surrounds, like Western Sydney.
While some portion of these populations do stay on longer-term, they are not all permanent settlers who will add to long-term population growth. Net migration figures, which take into account people who depart Australia every year as well as arrive, and exclude short-term visitors, have generally been decreasing over the past six years.
Who do we define as ‘migrants’?
New Zealand citizens moving under Trans-Tasman agreements and migrants from the United Kingdom are still among the largest migrant groups in Greater Western Sydney.
In many local government areas in Western Sydney – such as Wollondilly, the Hills Shire, Penrith, Hawkesbury and Campbelltown – England and/or New Zealand feature in the top five countries of birth of overseas-born residents.
If anxieties about migration and population in Western Sydney are based on genuine sustainability concerns and not xenophobia, why target mostly refugees and non-white migrants? Why focus only on areas with large non-white and non-English-speaking background populations?
Migrants do use infrastructure, but also drive economic and jobs growth
It’s never as simple as one new arrival “using up” an allocation of limited resources, whether jobs, housing, or seats on trains. In fact, new arrivals fill the gaps of an ageing workforce, and current migration policies are targeted to favour younger migrants and specific skills shortages.
Western Sydney, like many regions in Australia, has an ageing population. Residents aged 65-74 years increased from 6.2% in 2011 to 7.2% in 2016.
Infrastructure problems are also problems of policy, planning and funding, rather than just population numbers. Problems in transport and health infrastructure in Western Sydney cannot be easily solved by reactive anti-immigration attitudes or policies.
Cuts to programs like the humanitarian program or skilled temporary work visas, where the intake numbers remain relatively small as a proportion of the overall population, will not solve those infrastructure problems.
Western Sydney is growing, and with growth comes growing pains. But equating the region’s rich cultural diversity with a population crisis is the wrong message to send.
You can read other articles in the Is Australia Full? series here.
Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This article is part of our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
Neither of Australia’s two main political parties believes population is an issue worth discussion, and neither currently has a policy about it. The Greens think population is an issue, but can’t come at actually suggesting a target.
Even those who acknowledge that numbers are relevant are often quick to say that it’s our consumption patterns, and not our population size, that really matter when we talk about environmental impact. But common sense, not to mention the laws of physics, says that size and scale matter, especially on a finite planet.
In the meantime the nation has a bipartisan default population policy, which is one of rapid growth. This is in response to the demands of what is effectively a coalition of major corporate players and lobby groups.
Solid neoliberals all, they see all growth as good, especially for their bottom line. They include the banks and financial sector, real estate developers, the housing industry, major retailers, the media and other major players for whom an endless increase in customers is possible and profitable.
The growth coalition has no real interest in the cumulative social or environmental downside effects of this growth, nor the actual welfare of the immigrants. They fully expect to capture the profit of this growth program, while the disadvantages, such as traffic congestion, rising house prices and government revenue diverted for infrastructure catch-up, are all socialised – that is, the taxpayer pays.
The leaders of this well-heeled group are well insulated personally from the downsides of growth that the rest of us deal with daily.
A better measure of wellbeing than GDP
The idea that population growth is essential to boost GDP, and that this is good for everyone, is ubiquitous and goes largely unchallenged. For example, according to Treasury’s 2010 Intergenerational Report:
Economic growth will be supported by sound policies that support productivity, participation and population — the ‘3Ps’.
If one defines “economic growth” in the first place by saying that’s what happens when you have more and more people consuming, then obviously more and more people produce growth.
The fact that GDP, our main measure of growth, might be an utterly inadequate and inappropriate yardstick for our times remains a kooky idea to most economists, both in business and government.
Genuine progress peaked 40 years ago
One of the oldest and best-researched alternative measures is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Based on the work of the American economist Herman Daly in the 1970s and ’80s, GPI takes into account different measures of human wellbeing, grouped into economic, environmental and social categories.
Examples on the negative side of the ledger include income inequality, CO2 emissions, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and the misery of car accidents.
On the positive side, and also left out of GDP, are the value of household work, parenting, unpaid child and aged care, volunteer work, the quality of education, the value of consumer goods lasting longer, and so on. The overall GPI measure, expressed in dollars, takes 26 such factors into account.
Since it is grounded in the real world and our real experience, GPI is a better indicator than GDP of how satisfactory we find our daily lives, of our level of contentment, and of our general level of wellbeing.
As it happens, there is quite good data on GPI going back decades for some countries. While global GDP (and GDP per capita) continued to grow strongly after the second world war, and continues today, global GPI basically stalled in 1970 and has barely improved since.
In Australia the stall point appears to be about 1974. GPI is now lower than for any period since the early 1960s. That is, our wellbeing, if we accept that GPI is a fair measure of the things that make life most worthwhile, has been going backwards for decades.
What has all the growth been for?
It is reasonable to ask, therefore, what exactly has been the point of the huge growth in GDP and population in Australia since that time if our level of wellbeing has declined.
What is an economy for, if not to improve our wellbeing? Why exactly have we done so much damage to our water resources, soil, the liveability of our cities and to the other species with which we share this continent if we haven’t really improved our lives by doing it?
As alluded to earlier, the answer lies to a large extent in the disastrous neoliberal experiment foisted upon us. Yet many Australians understand that it is entirely valid to measure the success of our society by the wellbeing of its citizens and its careful husbandry of natural capital.
At the peak of GPI in Australia in the mid-1970s our population was under 15 million. Here then, perhaps, is a sensible, optimal population size for Australia operating under the current economic system, since any larger number simply fails to deliver a net benefit to most citizens.
It suggests that we have just had 40 years of unnecessary, ideologically-driven growth at an immense and unjustifiable cost to our natural and social capital. In addition, all indications are that this path is unsustainable.
With Australian female fertility sitting well below replacement level, we can achieve a slow and natural return to a lower population of our choice without any drastic or coercive policies. This can be done simply by winding back the large and expensive program of importing consumers to generate GDP growth – currently around 200,000 people per year and forecast to increase to almost 250,000 by 2020.
Despite endless political and media obfuscation, this is an entirely different issue from assisting refugees, with whom we can afford to be much more generous.
You can read other articles in the Is Australia Full? series here.
Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This is the first article in our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
Australia lacks an overarching population policy or strategy. Over the years, multiple inquiries have recommended such a policy. Population policies the world over typically focus on births and migration.
As part of post-war reconstruction, Australia adopted a 2% population growth target. Mass immigration was a defining feature, and couples were called on to populate or perish. Immigration was successful, but women were big losers in the push for births.
The 1975 National Population Inquiry proved a significant moment in Australian demography. The inquiry found that Australia should not seek to influence population, but should anticipate and respond.
Population policy was revisited in the 1990s with the National Population Council. Its 1994 report found no optimal population size for Australia, but again called for a responsive population policy of preparedness.
Despite such inquiries and recommendations to adopt a population policy, governments have so far resisted. Unsuccessful attempts at population policy can be understood in terms of difficulties in gaining political support and concerns about coercion.
But national population policy need not be coercive – unlike, for example, in India or China. Instead, it can be a series of targets and connected policy domains with oversight.
Presently, the policy landscape is disjointed. Parenting leave, family and childcare payments, and immigration are each somewhat responsive to population changes, but not prepared. Family payments have been shown not to increase birth rates.
What we know is that Australia’s population continues to age, so among the nation’s pressing issues is fewer taxpayers. The total age-related dependency ratio, of people aged over and under working age relative to the working-aged population, was 52 per 100 people in 2016.
While the child-dependency rate (0-14 year olds) is higher than the aged-dependency rate (people 65 and over), the rate of people aged less than 15 has steadily declined as the population aged 65 and over has driven increases in the so-called dependency burden.
The relative increase in people older than working age is increasing pressure on the economy and government budgets. While government spending on young people is substantial, the highest per person spending is among people aged 65 and over.
A robust workforce contributing income tax and services is essential to ensure current lifestyles are afforded to the young while also sustaining the public spending necessary for people over 65 years who have over their lives contributed to the nation.
In a 2013 United Nations survey, the Australian government reported concerns about population ageing, a desire to increase the “too low” birth rate, but satisfaction with the level of net overseas migration. Interestingly, a preference for migration away from cities was also cited.
From current policy and discourse, you would not know these views were held. Most Australians also report a preference for the level of immigration to remain the same or be increased, contrary to sentiments we often hear.
Australia has time to prepare for, and make opportunities of, the challenges of an ageing population. Some countries are facing tough decisions now and it is interesting to watch the politics play out. What Japan, China and Germany show is that we need to take action now.
Insightful guides are in place already. South Australia has had a population strategy since 2004. Tasmania recently adopted one.
These state strategies focus on growth to curb economic downturn. What is important in these two cases is that both emphasise policy portfolio linkages, as well as evidence and reporting against targets without coercive measures.
What is a sensible approach to population policy?
A renewed, earnest and transparent population conversation is needed. With ever more reliance on immigration, we must go beyond the unhelpful pro-immigration versus pro-nationalism debate to consider our population prospects.
The key question is: how can Australia make opportunities of its demographic challenges?
Australia has the potential to be a global leader in innovative markets and research and development. An ageing population provides an interesting market opening; we just need to be smart about it. Without careful consideration, Australia will be merely a bystander in the increasingly competitive global market.
Policy connectedness should exist between portfolios. These include: health; housing; education, skills and training; employment; infrastructure; regional development; water and energy; environment; and migrant settlement.
We can invest more effectively in young people – our future workforce and economic lifeblood – if we consider a life-course approach to population dynamics. Family friendly, gender-equal workplaces will go a long way to ease the pressures of having children. Integral to this is affordable and accessible child care.
And establishing a ministerial portfolio overseeing population strategy would be a good start.
Western Australia was previously the fastest-growing state but its population growth rate has fallen sharply (by about 70% since 2011-12), likely driven by the demise of the mining boom. Queensland’s growth has declined more gradually.
The most important reason for Victoria’s higher rate of net international migration was its higher per capita inflow of international students. Victoria also gained more people due to permanent migration.
After 2012, the net movement of New Zealand citizens to Australia fell rapidly (by 83% in two years). Due to its fall in numbers being shallower, Victoria replaced Queensland as the state receiving the largest net inflow of New Zealand citizens.
About 68% of the precipitous drop in Western Australia’s population growth rate since 2011-12 is because international migration to that state has fallen away. Previously, more people moved to Western Australia from the other states than in the other direction. Now, that trend has reversed.
Decreased net international migration also explains most of the decrease in Queensland’s growth rate over this period.
Big city squeeze
In recent years, Australia’s population has become increasingly concentrated in its largest cities, and several big cities are growing at well above the average Australian population growth rate.
Melbourne is Australia’s most rapidly growing city, a title it wrested from Perth around 2013-14.
Sydney’s population, which the ABS says recently reached 5 million, is also growing at above the national average rate. Net in-migration (people moving to Sydney) is the major component of Sydney’s population growth, as opposed to natural increase (births minus deaths).
Brisbane’s growth has slowed but remains above the national average. In contrast, many already sparsely settled areas in inland Australia are experiencing population decline.
The mix of overseas-born residents is changing
About 28.5% of Australia’s population was born overseas. People born in the United Kingdom are still the biggest group of overseas-born residents, making up 5% of Australia’s population. That picture is changing, however, as chart 1.2 from the ABS shows here.
The share of UK-born residents in Australia is declining, and the proportion of people born in New Zealand has grown over the last decade. Over the same period, the share of China-born residents has increased, and that’s also true for India-born residents.
Australia’s India-born resident population remain predominantly male (119 males per 100 females in 2016), although not as heavily so as previously.
In contrast to China’s male-dominated population back home, among the China-born residents in Australia females are increasingly outnumbering males (just 80 males per 100 females in 2016).