Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This is the second article in our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.
Population change has long been a topic of public debate in Australia, periodically escalating into controversy.
It is inextricably linked to debates about immigration levels, labour force needs, capital city congestion and housing costs, refugee intakes, economic growth in country areas and northern Australia, the “big versus smaller” Australia debate, and environmental pressures.
Views about the rate of population growth in Australia are numerous and mixed. At one end of the spectrum are those who are vehemently opposed to further population increases; at the other end are supporters of substantially higher population growth and a “very big” Australia.
Logically, population debates usually quote Australia’s demographic statistics. But there is value in comparing our population growth in the international context.
Average growth rates compared globally
Although growth rates have fluctuated considerably from year to year, statistics just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that Australia’s population grew by 3.75 million between 2006 and 2016. This indicates an average annual growth rate of 1.7%.
As the chart below shows, this was quite high compared to other countries and global regions. Over the decade, other English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the US all experienced growth rates lower than Australia’s. The world’s more developed countries in aggregate grew by an annual average of 0.3%.
The world’s population as a whole increased by an average of 1.2% per year.
According to the UN Population Division, Australia ranked 90th out of 233 countries in terms of population growth rate over the decade. The countries or territories with higher growth rates were mostly less developed countries, particularly in Africa, and the oil-rich Gulf states. The only developed countries with faster rates of growth were Singapore, Luxembourg and Israel.
Why Australia’s population growth rate is higher
There are two main reasons for Australia’s high growth.
Net overseas migration (immigration minus emigration) is one major factor. It has been generating a little over half (56%) of population growth in recent years.
Demand for immigration – to settle permanently, work in Australia, or study here for a few years – is high, and there are many opportunities for people to move to Australia. In the 2015-16 financial year about 190,000 visas were granted to migrants and 19,000 for humanitarian and refugee entry. Temporary migrants included 311,000 student visas, 215,000 working holidaymaker visas and 86,000 temporary work (skilled) 457 visas.
Over the last five years, ABS figures show that immigration has averaged about 480,000 per year and emigration about 280,000. This puts annual net overseas migration at around 200,000.
This is high in international terms. UN Population Division data for the 2010-15 period reveals Australia had the 17th-highest rate of net overseas migration of any country.
But it is not just overseas migration driving Australia’s population growth. High natural increase (the number of births minus the number of deaths) also makes a substantial contribution. Natural increase has been responsible for a little under half (44%) of population growth in recent years (about 157,000 per year).
This combination of an extended history of net overseas migration gains, a long baby boom and a healthy fertility rate has resulted in Australia being less advanced in the population ageing transition than many other developed countries.
In particular, relatively large numbers of people are in the peak childbearing ages. This means that even if migration fell immediately to zero the population would still increase. Demographers call this age structure effect “population momentum”.
Whether Australia’s population is growing too fast
While Australia’s population growth rate is high in a global context, this does not necessarily mean its population is growing too fast. It all depends on your point of view.
It is important to stress that the overall population growth rate is just one aspect of Australia’s demography. A more comprehensive debate about the nation’s demographic trajectory should consider a broad range of issues, such as:
population age structure (the numbers of people in different age groups);
the health and wellbeing of a rapidly growing population at the highest ages;
population distribution across the country;
economic growth and development;
the contributions of temporary workers and overseas students;
appropriate infrastructure for the needs of the population; and
environmental management and per-capita carbon emissions.
Progress on issues such as healthy ageing, economic development,and environmental management depend on appropriate strategies to deal with these challenges. Total population numbers will often be relevant to the discussion, but they are only part of the equation.