Shortcuts / 02 May 2024

Managing Australia’s Population

Managing Australia’s population is a complex task because it’s crucial to our economic growth and continued development, but it’s tricky to control, and often costly and politically controversial.

Population figures seem to come a lot…
They sure do, but despite being one of these news topics that’s really significant, it’s not that well-understood.

Let’s start with the facts…
In Australia, we currently have around 27.2 million people. That figure comes from the Bureau of Statistics’ population clock, which estimates that Australia adds one person every 46 seconds.

How do they get to that number? 
It’s a fairly basic bit of math… Essentially it’s the number of people being born, minus the number of people dying, plus the net migration number. ‘Net migration’ is a bit of jargon, but it basically means the total number of people coming to live here minus the number of people leaving. It can be a positive or negative number. Currently, in Australia we have positive net migration.

So migration is adding to our total population numbers?
Exactly. And our approach to population management has really changed over the decades. In the 1950s, after World War 2, the government was actively pushing to increase our population in the hope it would bolster the nation’s defence capability and economic prosperity after so much devastation. 

How long did that last?
Not long… Governments have increasingly favoured highly managed migration policies focused on people with characteristics that are likely to benefit economic growth. In other words – not just getting anyone in, but people with useful skills.

How do they manage that?
In the 2000s the Productivity Commission started talking about the 3 key drivers of economic growth — the principle of the ‘3 Ps’ of population, productivity and participation. That concept is still around today.

So how has Australia increased in size over time? 
If we go back to 1990, the total population was about 17 million people. In the year 2000 it was 19 million. In 2010 it was 22 million, and in 2020 it was 25.6 million people. Today we have more than 27 million. 

Whoa that’s a lot of numbers… 
Yes it is, but the takeaway from that potted history is that our population is growing faster than ever. And the Bureau of Stats reckons we’ll hit 30 million people by 2030. 

I thought COVID put a spanner in the works?
Good point, because the pandemic did change things, and this is where we start to get into some of the political argy-bargy, because different parties have different opinions on how much migration we should have.

Tell me more…
We probably don’t have to remind you, but during the pandemic, Australia’s border was closed for nearly 2 years. That had a radical impact on our population, because virtually overnight, lots of people who planned to call Australia home were suddenly shut out. 

And many Aussies were also trapped overseas…
Right – but it also had an impact on people who had already migrated to Australia. Being cut off from their families around the world for 2 years made many people already living here decide to leave. So as a result, in 2020-2021 more than 500,000 temporary migrants left.

That sounds like a lot?
It was, and it led to a rare net loss in migration of 70,000 people. And it’s crucial to note that many of those people were young, skilled workers. That’s something the government acknowledged in June 2021 when a lot of businesses suddenly couldn’t find skilled workers, leaving a lot of critical jobs empty. It also meant a lot of people who might have had children also left – but more on that later… 

OK but COVID ended a while ago…
Correct. The government stated in the 2023 Budget Papers that “the pandemic resulted in the first net outflow of overseas migration from Australia since World War II”. But the tide has turned… 

How so?
In March, it was revealed that migration increased by one-third in 2023, meaning Australia’s population rose by a record number of almost 550,000 people. So we went from having a loss to a huge increase.

Was that good news?
Not necessarily… Last December, the Albanese government announced it would reduce migration following a post-COVID influx. That’s part of a major plan to return immigration to what PM Anthony Albanese calls a sustainable level. That includes a reduced number of 190,000 places for permanent migration – which covers skilled migrants, family members coming from overseas, and those arriving on humanitarian grounds.

Is everyone on board with that?
No… The Coalition isn’t impressed with the plan. It’s taken aim at the government and blamed the surge in new arrivals for one major issue in Oz today, which was summed up by Shadow Immigration Minister Dan Tehan… He said that “record numbers of people are causing a housing crisis, they’re causing a rental crisis”. 

I hear a lot about the housing crisis…
Right, and it is particularly being felt in Sydney – which is the number one destination for new arrivals. In fact, more than half of Australia’s migrants move to Sydney or Melbourne.

Why is that?
New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland account for over 75% of our population because that’s where most of the jobs and facilities are. So of course, that affects housing. Data shows that even nationally, a lot more people arrived than new homes were built, which some economists say is to blame for a lack of affordable housing. 

So not everyone agrees about that?
No, some groups say we shouldn’t demonise migrants when really the issue comes down to other factors like negative gearing and foreign ownership. It’s very contentious because housing is something everyone needs.

Is it all about housing?
Far from it – there are many different political arguments over migration. The Coalition has argued for many years that migrants are putting too much strain on infrastructure and causing overcrowding in our cities, impacting everything from public transport to hospitals. 

Are the Coalition the only ones with concerns?
Nope. The Greens say population growth is outstripping environmental capacity – not only because of too many people, but because too many of us are consuming too many vital resources, including fuel and food. They also want a better geographical distribution of people – but as we’ve said, it’s hard to build up regional areas when the majority of jobs and facilities are in the big cities.

Yikes, anything else?
Yes actually, whether it’s housing or any other policy discussion, one of major underlying factors is the make-up of our population… Particularly the age of Aussies…

Because we’re all so young and fabulous?
Not quite… We have an ageing population. Non-Indigenous Aussies can now expect to live into their 80s, but it’s about a decade less for First Nations people – which is a whole other issue that we can’t get into here.

Isn’t growing old a good thing?
Yes, but speaking as a whole, in the year 2000, about 12% of our population was people aged 65yo and older. But as of 2022, that age group accounted for 17% of the population – which is a massive increase in not a lot of time.

Why is that an issue?
In part, because it’s tied to another big problem that we have, which is a below-replacement fertility rate – that’s a fancy way of saying that not enough babies are being born to replace the number of people dying. That in turn means we won’t have enough working people to pay for the needs of an increasing number of older people – expensive things like healthcare, aged care homes, pensions, etc.

How bad is this problem?
It’s getting worse and has been for a while. It’s estimated that people aged 65yo and older will outnumber children in Australia within the next decade, which means there won’t be enough young people to grow up into working-age adults to support older people, or to have babies.

What can we do about it?
Increasing women’s participation in the workforce has been one means of addressing this problem… But because women still undertake the majority of caring responsibilities – both for children and elderly relatives, it has a huge impact on their ability to work full time. That’s one reason the number of women in paid jobs is just under 63% compared to 71% of men.

Are other countries having these issues?
Absolutely, these problems are not unique to Australia. Many countries are facing the same problem of an aging population and not enough babies being born. Everywhere from Japan, to the UK and US – which means many countries are competing for the same pool of talented migrants. And with the cost of living in Oz being so high, combined with strict rules about family visas and long wait times – a lot of good people are going elsewhere, like Canada. 

But the government wants fewer migrants anyway, right?
Yes, and whether it’s through choice or a reduction in the number of Aussie visas available, the number of migrants is expected to go down in the coming years. But that still leaves Australia with the question of how we’re going to address the ageing population. 

Sounds difficult…
Yes there’s a real push-pull tension between the number of people we want and need to come into Australia to solve these issues, versus the pressures on our cities where house and rental prices are higher than ever, services are overloaded, and women aren’t having enough babies to make up for the shortfall. 

So there’s no easy answers?
Exactly, population management is a really complex issue, and something that’s going to be part of our national discussion for a long time to come.

Squiz recommends:
Watching: For something lighter, there’s a really interesting video story from the ABC about some of the extreme measures Japan is taking to counteract its ageing and increasingly urbanised population.

Reading: If you want to get into the nitty gritty of our population data… The Australian Government’s 2023 Population Statementhas heaps of detail.

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