Monday 29 May 2017

Population growth across Northern Australia slows to a crawl

Dr Andrew Taylor

The White Paper on developing Northern Australia (‘Our North: Our Future’) emphasised the importance of population size for growth in the north. Indeed, the relatively small population in the north was suggested as the key impediment to growth (pg. 4). Targets to grow several cities to a million or more residents by the year 2060 and increase the overall population of the north four-fold (to 4-5 million) were proposed.

Unfortunately, these aspirations came at a time of peak population growth, particularly in the larger centres across the north. Data since then are a sanguine reminder that growth in northern and remote areas is volatile and subject to a multitude of factors (we invented the ‘8D’s of Remote Demography’ to help explain why this is the case).

The chart below shows a decade of estimated net additions to the population of Northern Australia  (as defined in the White Paper) and the annual growth rate (on the right-side Y-axis). In 2008 and 2009 around 25,000 net additions per year to the population occurred and growth was above 2.5% per annum. The decline in both since then is striking, with growth during 2016 close to zero (0.3%), and negative growth only being prevented by overseas migration. Improvements during 2012 and 2013 are interesting, and reflect increased net overseas migration to the region - and particularly for skilled migrants.

Figure 1 - Net additions to the population (left Y-axis) and population growth rate (right Y-axis) for Northern Australia

Source: Author calculations from ABS: 3218.0  Regional Population Growth, Australia, 30 March 2017

So what might some of the causes be? My colleague Professor Dean Carson has put forward that, for the Northern Territory at least, we have become uncompetitive in the interstate migration market and may be experiencing a 'fail to arrive syndrome'. This is borne out at least in part in the data with a 25% decline in the net position for women (the combined net loss from those 'failing to arrive' and female residents departing the NT). In terms of sources for potential new residents, it used to be the case that one in ten people leaving South Australia came to the Territory. That is now at around one in seventeen. Coming north is a risk and we are a long way from family and friends, we are hot and we are more expensive to live in than many other regions. We also fail to 'keep our own' with residents tending to leave the whole region rather than migrating within it. Our research brief and working papers series discuss these and many other issues pertinent to Northern Australia, so take a look.

It will be fascinating to examine these issues in more detail once the 2016 Census data is available in October. In the meantime individual initiatives like big projects funded by the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, targeted local migration strategies and 're-branding' strategies to help address the 'fail to arrive syndrome' should help turn the curve around. Demographers like us can help by modelling population outcomes across different sets of initiatives and investments at localised and higher levels. In the north, localised initiatives may be especially important for their aggregated impact on population growth because technology changes and labour-sourcing practices by large (particularly multi-national) companies mean that big infrastructure projects (in general) no longer contribute significantly to local population growth in the north: just ask Darwin!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of colleagues, the Northern Institute or of Charles Darwin University.

Demography North

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