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Twelve months of COVID impacts on population - featured image
By Simone Alexander

Twelve months of COVID impacts on population

Much as I appreciate the ABS releasing population data every quarter, March and September generally have limited interest for me.

PeopleThis year is different.

The release of the March 2021 quarter data means there is now a full year to assess the impact of the international border closure on population change.

I've blogged previously about the potential impacts of this on population change, particularly overseas migration.

Now that we have the data, what does it tell us?

What is Australia's population?

Au PopulationAustralia's population at March 2021 was 25.7 million, an increase of 0.1% (35,700 persons) in the previous twelve months.

This was the lowest growth rate recorded since 1916, and the lowest volume of growth recorded since the 1860s.

By way of comparison, Australia's population grew by 1.5% in the twelve months ended March 2020, equating to a growth of 375,690 persons.

Net overseas migration (NOM) was -95,340 persons, consisting of 114,950 arrivals and 210,290 departures.

The only reason Australia's population continued to grow was due to a natural increase of 131,020 (births minus deaths).

The components of population change are shown in the graph below.


In terms of the drivers of growth, this is a clear departure from past trends.

It highlights the impact of the international border closure, with movement in and out of Australia highly regulated.

More than 18 months into the pandemic (Sept 2021) the border is still closed, with no firm date of reopening.

Recently a pilot program involving the return of some international students in NSW was announced, but the numbers are limited.

NOW READ: Here’s what’s happening to Australia’s population thanks to Covid

Until the border is open to wide-scale migration, the natural increase will drive population growth in Australia.

However, it's worth noting that natural increase has generally declined each year since 2013.

In the year ended March 2013, the natural increase was 162,150, but the equivalent figure in 2021 was 131,020.

This represents a decline of 19%.

It can be explained by a decline in the number of births, as well as a minor increase in the number of deaths.

In fact, the number of births in 2020 was below 300,000 for the first time since 2008.

The decline in birth numbers was particularly sharp in 2020 (-4.0%), and was recorded across all states and territories.

This decline is unlikely to be related to decisions made about fertility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victoria has recorded a complete demographic turnaround

They say a week is a long time in politics, and if that's the case, the last twelve months have been an eternity in demographics.

The December 2020 quarter population release provided a taster of what's happening in Victoria, and it's fair to say there has been a complete U-turn in terms of population trends.

In 2019, Victoria was the fastest-growing state (2.0%), but in the year ended March 2021, the population declined by 0.6%.


Victoria's population in March 2021 was 6.65 million, almost 43,000 fewer than the previous year.

Victoria has not recorded negative population growth since WW1.

In 1915, the population declined by 10,740 (-0.7%), and this was followed by another decline of 19,780 (-1.4%) in 1916.

This was due to the movement of troops out of the country and other travel restrictions.

Most states and territories also recorded population decline at the time.

Clearly, population decline is a rare occurrence in Victoria, and indeed, it's rare for the state to record very modest rates of population growth.

Since 1900 annual population growth has been less than 0.5% on just fourteen occasions.

The 1930s and 1990s are the prime examples, coincidentally both times of economic recession.

In 1993, Victoria's population grew by just 8,520 persons (0.2%), the last time the volume of growth was less than 10,000.

Before then, modest growth was recorded during the 1930s, with a low of 4,940 persons (0.3%) in 1935.

The graph below provides a historical overview of population change in Victoria since 1851.


Queensland is the fastest-growing state

In March 2021, Queensland's population was 5.21 million, an increase of 0.9% (43,900) over the previous twelve months.

QueenslandMuch of this growth was fuelled by net interstate migration (30,790).

Natural increase contributed another 29,150 persons to the population, but there was a NOM loss of 16,000 persons.

Together, these trends meant that Queensland recorded the strongest growth rate in Australia.

Interestingly, the volume of growth in Queensland almost mirrors the decline in Victoria.

Though it's tempting to attribute this growth to Victorians moving north, the reality is more complex.

Queensland's interstate arrivals primarily come from NSW.

In addition, increasing gains from net interstate migration predate the pandemic, continuing long-standing trends.

The role of overseas migration in NSW

NSW recorded very modest population growth (0.1%), or 11,700 persons, to reach a population of 8.18 million.

This was the lowest growth since 1916 (-0.4%, or -8,400 persons).

NswTypically, NSW receives the largest share of overseas migrants in Australia and this is a major driver of population change.

However, for the year ended March 2021, NOM was negative (-13,490), as was net interstate migration (-17,800).

A natural increase of 43,010 resulted in the modest population increase recorded.

The closure of the international border has not stopped migration in and out of Australia altogether.

The chart below shows overseas arrivals and departures by the state for the year ended March 2021.

It shows that all states recorded negative net overseas migration.

However, the number of arrivals into NSW was far higher than other states, comprising 51% of the total.


The last 18 months have been unprecedented in terms of the international border closure and the impact on population change.

Arrivals to Australia are now heavily regulated, with caps introduced for each state and mandatory hotel quarantine for most arrivals.

In the second half of 2020, the second wave of COVID cases in Victoria resulted in the suspension of hotel quarantine in that state.

Consequently, more arrivals came through NSW.

As mentioned above, 51% of arrivals came through NSW in the year ended March 2021, compared to 36% the previous year.


This may explain some of the increase in NSW, however, the ABS methodology explains that arrivals into Australia are coded to their state of usual residence.

NSW arrivals may enter the country through Sydney airport but subsequently travel to their home state.

It's not clear if COVID has impacted this aspect of the methodology.

An intriguing aspect of this is that if NSW had recorded the same share of arrivals that it did the previous year, then that state would have also recorded population decline.

NSW has long recorded net interstate migration loss, and the year ended March 2021 was no exception.

Like Victoria, the level of natural increase would not have been enough to offset a larger negative NOM in this scenario.

In other words, part of the reason NSW recorded an increase in population was that the state received proportionally more overseas arrivals than usual.


The release of the March 2021 quarter population data means there is now a full year to assess the impact of the international border closure on population change.

Australia-people--300x182The impact on overseas migration, and subsequently population growth, has been immense.

The Australian population grew by just 0.1% to reach 25.7 million.

Growth only occurred due to natural increases.

Queensland was the fastest-growing state (0.9%) on the back of strong net interstate migration.

At the other end of the scale, Victoria recorded a population decline of 0.6%.

This was a complete turnaround from the 2.0% recorded a little more than a year ago.

Australia's population will continue to grow at modest levels by way of natural increase while the international border remains closed.

NOW READ: Population growth in Australia the lowest in a century

Twelve months of COVID impacts on population

About 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.
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