Monday, October 8, 2018

Interstate migration trends in Australia

Last week the ABS released Australian Demographic Statistics, a quarterly publication that contains population data for the States and Territories of Australia.  Australia's population continues to grow strongly, but media reports associated with this release focused on Queensland regaining its place as the State with the highest net interstate migration gain.  But is this the whole story?  Read on to find out.

The volatility of migration flows

Migration is a volatile component of population change - the numbers respond to a number of stimuli and mobility preferences.  The chart below show interstate migration gain for NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia since 1981-82.  

Note that this chart shows data for financial years as opposed to the year ended March - as per the most recent ABS population release (I prefer to work with calendar or financial years in an Australian context).  Regardless, there have been several peaks and troughs across this time period.  NSW has consistently lost population through interstate migration to other States and Territories.  In the last 36 years Australia's largest State has never recorded positive net migration gain.  Losses were highest in the late 1980s and again in the early to mid 2000s.  

Victoria consistently lost population through interstate migration up until the late 1990s, but generally since then has gained population from other States and Territories.  Since 2011-12 this gain has increased and is part of the reason for the strong rates of population growth currently being recorded.  

Queensland consistently gains population from interstate and at times the level has been extremely high ie late 1980s, mid 1990s and mid 2000s.  From 2003 the level of net interstate migration gain declined considerably, bottoming out in the early 2010s.  Between 2012-13 and 2014-15, Queensland gained less than 10,000 persons through interstate migration, compared to more than 20,000 between 2001-02 and 2004-05.  More recently net migration gain has been increasing again in line with a strengthening economy.

Western Australia follows a volatile pattern of gains and losses through interstate migration which trend to match the ebbs and flows of the mining sector.  Since 2013-14 WA has lost population to other parts of Australia and the loss has increased each year - quite a turnaround from the height of the mining boom in the early 2010s when the gains were on a par with Queensland.

Other States and Territories in Australia record far lower levels of net interstate migration.  South Australia has traditionally lost population to other parts of Australia.  The last time there was a positive gain was back in 1990-91 but was not part of a sustained trend.  Since the early 2000s, the level of net migration loss has trended downwards and exceeded 7,200 persons in 2015-16, higher than the losses recorded in the early 1990s recession.

Interstate migration trends in the Northern Territory follow a similar pattern to WA but structural changes in the mining sector have a greater impact on the smaller population.  Net interstate migration losses from the NT are increasing.  In the nine months ended March 2018, the loss exceeded that for the whole 2016-17 financial year.  One of my previous blogs showed that population growth in the NT is now very modest.  If current trends continue, the NT faces the prospect of population loss.  It is little wonder that the NT government is actively seeking ways to encourage more people to live up north.

Special mention should also be made of Tasmania and its recent interstate migration gains.  Tasmania has long recorded modest rates of population growth and has an older age structure, which means there is no inbuilt population momentum for natural increase (older people don't have children).  Tasmania recorded net interstate migration loss throughout the 1990s, but since 2000 there have been periods of losses and gains with no long term trend.  However, since 2014-15, Tasmania's level of net interstate migration has increased.  If current trends persist the State will record the highest level of interstate migration gain since the early 2000s.  However it would be naive to assume that this means the end of the demographic challenges in Tasmania - the age structure of interstate migrants needs consideration, and there's the very real possibility that the State could record natural decrease in the near future.

Emerging trends in 2017-18

The data released by the ABS last week referred to the March quarter 2018, and hence is our first look at population trends in the current year.  For the 2017-18 financial year to date, some interesting trends emerge.  NSW lost more people interstate in the nine months ended March 2018 compared to 2016-17, so unless there is a complete turnaround in long standing demographic trends it maintain its place as the State that records the highest interstate migration loss.  Interstate migration losses from WA appear to have slowed in the last nine months compared to 2016-17, perhaps signalling the end of large scale interstate migration losses from that State.  Queensland is likely to exceed a net migration gain of 20,000 persons in 2017-18 if current trends persist - a level that has not been seen since 2006-07.

The real stories behind interstate migration require more consideration than just the latest figures.  The data presented here shows there have been huge changes in the level of net interstate migration in recent years.  Some of these, such as Victoria and Tasmania gaining population through interstate migration, are contrary to long term historical trends.  The age profile of interstate migrants is another interesting story - one for a future blog!  


Queensland is once again the national leader in terms of net interstate migration gain, however the level of gain is far lower than that recorded throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Victoria continues to record historically high levels of net interstate migration gain, a significant contributor to the strong population growth rate.  The level of interstate migration loss has increased in recent years in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.  Tasmania now gains population through interstate migration, and though this is contributing to higher rates of population growth, some very real demographic challenges associated with ageing populations remain.

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