Monday, 10 April 2017

Boosting population growth in the Northern Territory

Boosting population growth in the Northern Territory

Dr Tom Wilson


In late 2016 and early 2017 the Northern Territory Government hosted a number of economic summits in order to help formulate a long-term economic development plan for the Territory. Recently it released for comment a draft Economic Development Framework document containing a wide range of potential economic strategies. Population is mentioned several times in the draft framework, but I argue that it should be given greater prominence and the development framework be adapted to become a combined economic and population development policy.

Population growth is integral to growing the Territory’s economy. A larger population means more workers, and more consumers. Currently the Territory is home to just 1% of Australia’s resident population, and population growth for the last few years has been well below the national average. Low population growth affects demand for all those industries providing goods and services to the local population, and saps business confidence. As the Territory loses national population share, it loses share of the GST distribution (which may reduce the size of the public service, a major employer) and risks losing one of its two seats in the House of Representatives.

Since 2013 population growth has been sustained by natural change (births minus deaths) and net overseas migration (immigration minus emigration). These two factors have only just offset net interstate migration losses (the result of about 14,000 people moving from the rest of Australia to the Territory each year, and about 17,000 going in the opposite direction).

It seems unlikely that the Territory will experience large net gains of people from the major cities of the south in the future. It has a small labour market, high living costs, and a climate that does not appeal to all. Importantly, moving to the Territory takes many people a long way from established networks of family and friends.

Could governments influence fertility and mortality rates instead? Experience shows that most government attempts to raise fertility are unsuccessful, and efforts to reduce mortality through medical research and public health programs – especially for the Indigenous population – have long been underway, and are continuing.

The key to population growth in the Territory is immigration, and retaining many of those immigrants in the long run. I suggest three key ways in which the Northern Territory could boost its population through immigration.

More overseas students

First, the Territory should aim to substantially increase its number of overseas students. This is not a new idea, but it is worth reiterating. According to the Department of Education and Training, there were 307,000 international enrolments in higher education in 2016 across Australia. In the Northern Territory there were 1,400 – just under 0.5% of the national total. There are many more undertaking VET and English language courses.

There should be considerable potential to increase students from Indonesia and other neighbouring South East Asian countries. Darwin offers a welcoming multicultural environment, climate similarities with many Asian countries, and a shorter flight home. While many return home on completion of their studies, some overseas students transfer to other visas and contribute valuable skills to the Australian workforce. Instead of having a below-population share of Australia’s overseas students, the Territory could aim for a greater share, say 2%. The boost to the Territory’s economy would also be considerable.

Increased humanitarian intake

Second, the Territory could accept a greater share of the nation’s humanitarian migration intake. ABS statistics show that over the most recent five years of data there were about 10,000 immigrants per year in the “Special eligibility and humanitarian” category nationally, but an average of only about 60 for the Territory. If the Territory were to aim for an above-population share of Australia’s humanitarian intake, such as 2%, the absolute numbers would still be quite small but not insignificant relative to the Territory’s recent population growth.

Offer a new home to Pacific islanders facing inundation

Third, the Territory and Commonwealth governments could agree to create a special regional migration scheme to offer a new home for Pacific islanders whose homelands are being affected by rising sea levels. Countries such as the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Cook Islands are particularly vulnerable to sea level rises according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scheme would have to be restricted to the Territory only to be successful. If immigration of entire extended families occurred, the presence of family networks might reduce the rate of subsequent onwards interstate migration to other parts of Australia.

Doubtless there would legal, political and practical obstacles to navigate for this migration scheme to be implemented. And it would probably begin as a small-scale trial. But it potentially offers a significant increase to the Territory’s population with resulting benefits for the economy. At the same time Australia, and the Northern Territory, would be making an important contribution as a decent global citizen.

Demography North

No comments: