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Interstate migration: behind the headlines - featured image
By Ross Elliott

Interstate migration: behind the headlines

Interstate migration is one of those news stories that media networks love because of the easy headlines and “human interest” angles.

Real estate people love them too when the numbers help them boost market interest.

The latest data release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics achieved both in Queensland.

But what’s the deeper story behind the headlines?


This graph provides the very long-term view of net interstate migration to Queensland since 1982.

The net figure is the result of arrivals fewer departures.

A low net figure doesn’t mean any arrivals. It just means as many departures as arrivals.

For example, the latest June quarter number of net 7,035 interstate migration to Queensland represents the difference between 28,500 arrivals and 21,465 departures.

You could in theory have 100,000 arrivals but if matched by the same departures, your net growth is obviously zero.

But it’s the gross number that contributes to real estate transaction volumes; the net signals an increasing market size.

I have provided an annualised estimate for 2021, simply to put the figure into context.


We are a long way off setting records.

The early 2000s, the mid-1990s, and the late 1980s were all much stronger periods.

This was both because arrival numbers were high and also because departures were relatively less.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the records of the late 1980s and early 1990s were being set when Queensland’s total population was around 3 million.

It is now 5 million.

So to have the same impact on growth as 50,000 did on a population of 3 million, today’s numbers would need to annualise around 80,000 net interstate arrivals.

We are a long way from that.


The next graph (above) charts net interstate migration by quarter for the last decade, showing the five larger states.

Queensland has consistently seen larger net numbers, driven mostly by net departures in recent years from NSW but also from WA and South Australia.

Victoria’s numbers crashed with Covid.


The ABS now kindly also provide data on net migration to large metro areas.

As this graph above shows, Melbourne’s exodus was record-setting in every respect.

Some escaped to regional Victorian towns (Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong) while many headed out of the state.

The Hume Highway north must have been busy in this period.

Sydney has also been losing people but the exodus has been consistent and not as marked by Covid.

The greater Brisbane region has gained but a sharp upward spike to match Melbourne’s sharp Covid related decline isn’t evident – higher growth has been occurring in the balance of the South-East Queensland region.

Developers on the Gold and Sunshine Coast might attest to that.


Lastly, the source of net migration to Brisbane is the combination of intrastate and interstate arrivals.

Here you can see that for much of the last five years or so, net movements from within Queensland to Brisbane were contributing almost as much as movements from interstate to Brisbane.

This wasn’t the case for the 2003 to 2013 period, where more people left Brisbane for elsewhere in Queensland than arrived.

The curious thing about these numbers is the much-discussed city-for-regions exodus isn’t showing up yet.

That might be revealed in later data but for the June 2021 quarter at least, more people arrived in Brisbane from elsewhere in Queensland, than left.

The graph also shows the recent increase in net interstate migration to Brisbane which has the media and boosters excited, but it also shows this isn’t anything to get overheated about yet compared with previous “booms.”

The question that needs to be asked about all this is: is net migration a good thing?

To me that depends.

Au MigrationIf population growth is fuelled by migration of lower-skilled, limited resources migrants, that puts a strain on the receiving economy because they consume more services than they contribute to (at least in the early years).

But the arrival of highly skilled migrants with financial resources can contribute sooner.

This is what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s – interstate migrants came with a full-time job waiting for them, and surplus cash from the arbitrage of their house sale in Sydney or Melbourne.

What happens next after extended Covid city-wide lockdowns will be interesting.

The 2032 Olympics lure and the jobs that could accompany it could see numbers to the SEQ Region lift in the medium to long term.

But as with all things Covid, the question of what happens next is a lot of guesswork.

About Ross Elliott Ross Elliott has spent close to 30 years in real estate and property roles, including as a State Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Property Council of Australia, as well a national executive director of the Residential Development Council. He has authored and edited a large number of research and policy papers and spoken at numerous conferences and industry events. Visit
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