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Migration: more important than ever

The September quarter of 2020 reset Australia’s population records – for the first time since World War I, the country’s population went backwards. It’s not surprising that this has been the result of international border closures, and in the September quarter alone, almost 35,000 more people left Australia than arrived. This resulted in the largest negative net overseas migraiton on record.

Those leaving Australia have generally been aged between 15 and 29 years of age. Many are international students who have completed their studies as would normally occur; only this time the outward flow hasn’t been offset by new arrivals. Ditto for working holiday makers.

The net outflow has resulted in a decrease in the number of 15 to 29 year olds living in Australia (compared to the year prior) for the first time in two decades.

Source: ABS National, state and territory population.

Historically overseas migration has been a large component of population growth for Australia and for many of the states and territories. The closure of international borders has also put a spotlight on interstate and intrastate movements. Victoria, which has benefited from strong interstate migration, has seen a shift away from the state. The June quarter represented the first negative net interstate migration figures for Victoria since 2008. As an offset, those jurisdictions that usually lose people to Victoria have seen more positive net interstate migration figures.

There is also discussion that people are leaving the cities for the regions, and while net movements from capitals to regions has increased in recent quarters, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The chart below shows the cause of this is fewer people leaving the regions rather than more people arriving in the regions. So, it’s not a story of people fleeing the cities, but rather a story of people staying in the regions. 

Source: ABS Regional internal migration estimates.

This distinction matters as COVID vaccinations pave the way for a return to normality. The risk for regional areas is that the new normal isn’t additional people fleeing the cities, it might be that those that have remained in the regions have only temporarily extended their stay and will still leave. So, regional Australia will need to focus on keeping current populations as well as attracting people away from the cities.

In the absence of net international migration, the competition between different areas of the country to both retain and attract people is likely to keep heating up.