Population growth in Australia remains steady

I don’t normally blog about the March and September quarter population data, but 2020 is different.

Covid CoronaThe COVID-19 pandemic has had, and will continue to have, profound impacts on population change.

For this reason, the release of the March quarter data by the ABS was highly anticipated due to the progressive restrictions on overseas arrivals from early February 2020.

This was followed by a hard border closure in late March.

Given that a large proportion of population growth is driven by overseas migration, it was clear that this would have a major impact on our population growth rate.

Turns out this data release was a bit of a fizzer – in fact the release of the data pretty much flew under the radar.

Read on to find out why.

What is Australia’s population?

At March 2020, Australia’s population was 25.65 million.

This was an increase of 357,020 persons on the March 2019 figure, or a growth rate of 1.4%.

The growth rate was marginally less than the year ended figure for December 2019 (1.5%). The volume of increase was the lowest recorded since 2013.

Victoria continues to be the fastest growing state, recording a growth rate of 1.8% over twelve months to March 2020.

At the other end of the scale, the Northern Territory recorded another year of negative growth (though the March quarter itself recorded a small gain of population).

In the twelve months ending March 2020, population loss amounted to -407 persons (-0.2%).

COVID-19 restrictions and overseas migration

In the March 2020 quarter, net overseas migration (NOM) totalled 78,500 persons.

This compares with 83,550 in the March 2019 quarter.

Population Groath AThe March quarter typically sees a higher volume of NOM due to the arrival of international students for the beginning of the academic year.

The main reason for the lower NOM figure in March 2020 was due to a decrease in the volume in both NSW and Victoria, ie the states that typically receive most overseas migrants.

In most other states, notably Western Australia, NOM in March 2020 was higher than the March 2019 quarter.

In fact, the volume of NOM in Western Australia was the highest recorded in any quarter since 2013 – an interesting result in light of the current situation.

The chart below shows the March quarter population growth in Australia between 2006 and 2020.

It clearly shows the volatility in the volume of NOM.

The net figure of 78,500 in March 2020 continues the decline that has occurred since 2017, but is still higher than most years since 2010.

At the same time, natural increase has been relatively stable.

March Qtr Components 2006 2020

So why was the volume NOM largely unaffected by the travel restrictions associated with COVID-19?

The most obvious one is that the closure of the international border did not occur until 18 March, and this applied to non-citizens.

Melbourne LockdownIn other words, only two weeks of the quarter were affected by this policy stance.

Most of Australia’s migrants are here temporarily, and a large proportion are international students, who, as mentioned above, typically arrive in the March quarter.

Most international students would have arrived throughout January and February.

China is the major source of international students in Australia and travel bans were introduced on 1 February for anyone who had been in China in the previous 14 days.

However, media reports at the time indicated some Chinese students circumvented this requirement by travelling to another country before flying to Australia.

What will happen in the June 2020 quarter?

Things will get interesting in the June 2020 quarter as the entire three months was subject to international border closures to non-citizens, limited flight options for Australian citizens returning, and the closure of some state and territory borders.

These closures are ongoing, and in some cases, have tightened considerably.

The ABS has been progressively releasing preliminary estimates of overseas arrivals and departures. Even though they are subject to change, they paint a dire picture. In the June 2020 quarter, there were a total of 17,770 arrivals and 76,810 departures.

This compares to 2.11 million arrivals and 2.34 million departures in the March 2019 quarter.

PopulationEven though these numbers include temporary visitor visas (who are unlikely to appear in the ERP) they still show the impact of border closures on Australia’s migration statistics, and ultimately, the impact on our population.

Since I wrote a blog on the population impacts of COVID-19 back in May, the story has changed considerably.

At the time the number of new cases each day in Australia were low, and there was a general feeling that the worst of the pandemic was over.

My contention was that population impacts would be a blip confined to just a few months of border closures.

The Australian government was seriously considering a “travel bubble” with New Zealand to facilitate trans-Tasman movement, such was the level of confidence.

The outbreak of the second wave in Victoria in July changed all that.

Melbourne was placed under stage 4 lockdown and the economy took a beating.

There were smaller outbreaks in NSW.

The Australian border remains closed and all states tightened border restrictions, particularly to Victorians.

State border controls are slowly being lifted, but it’s clear that population impacts are far more long term than initially thought.

Watch this space.

Population data for the June 2020 quarter will be released in December.


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Simone Alexander


Simone Alexander is a demographic consultant with more than 20 years of experience working in both the public and private sectors. She uses her expertise to blog about demographic trends, housing and planning issues in Australia’s cities and regions.
Visit demogblog.blogspot.com

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