Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Belshaw's World - comings, goings and the end of big Australia

PM Gillard’s announcement that she was opposed to the concept of a “big Australia” marked another stage in the population debate that has been underway in this country over the last year or so.

As in all these things, it is not just the absolute number of people, but also their distribution in terms of geography and age that is important. In geographic terms, there are parts of Australia that can sustain, indeed need, more people, while other parts arguably do not.

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest estimates of the Australian population. We can use these numbers to scope some elements of the debate.

The ABS provides three estimates of the future Australian population, high, low and medium. The existence of three estimates helps explain the variations you will see in the numbers used by people in talking about future numbers.

The ABS estimated that the Australian population at the end of December 2009 was 22.155 million. It projected that by 2051 it would rise to:

  • High 40.087 million
  • Medium 34.213 million
  • Low 30.307 million.

Quite a big variation, isn’t it?

The three estimates incorporate different assumptions. Of these, assumptions about migration rates are the most important because net overseas migration is now the key driver of population increase. Net overseas migration simply means the number of new settlers minus those leaving the country on a long term basis.

The following table shows the relative contributions to Australia’s population growth in the year ended 30 December 2009.

Natural Increase   154,900
Add new migrants 508,000  
Less Australians leaving 230,300  
Net overseas migration   277,700
Total population increase   432,600

I suspect that in all the debate about migration and population size, very few Australians realise just how many people we now lose each year to emigration. Some return, of course, but many don’t.

The size of Australian emigration actually makes it far easier to cut population growth, if that is what we want. Even if we wanted to cut net population growth to zero, we don’t actually have to ban all new migration, simply reduce it to the point where negative net migration offsets the natural rate of population increase.

The following table shows what the numbers would have looked like in 2009 with a zero total population increase.

Natural Increase   154,900
Add new migrants 75,400  
Less Australians leaving 230,300  
Net overseas migration   -154,900
Total population increase   zero

This is a pretty extreme case. It would mean drastically cutting all classes of migrant entry, including both family reunion and skilled migration. However, what might happen if we cut immigration back to the point that it simply balanced emigration?

Natural Increase   154,900
Add new migrants 230,300  
Less Australians leaving 230,300  
Net overseas migration   zero
Total population increase   154,900

As you can see, in this case, we would still have admitted 230,300 migrants in 2009, but the total population increase would have been limited to the natural increase of 154,900.

Now what might this mean in population terms if maintained for, say, ten years?

Well, to begin with, on the 2009 figures, the total Australian population would be some 2.8 million lower than would otherwise be the case. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your viewpoint.

Equally importantly, the relative distribution of the Australian population would likely have changed quite noticeably. The faster growing areas would continue to attract people from slower growth areas, but the migrant intakes that presently replace them would not be there, reducing population growth.

Take NSW as an example.

In 2009, the state’s population grew by 115,798. Of this, no less than 83,787 came from net overseas migration.

With zero net overseas migration, the state’s population growth would have been just 32,051. Looking over a ten year time horizon and on the 2009 figures, the state’s population growth would fall from 1.16 million to 320,510. Sydney, in particular, would experience a sharp fall in growth.

In my next column I will look at the implications of this, with a special focus on New England.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 30 June 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

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