Australia’s population evolution: Short-term gains and long-term thinking

Posted April 04, 2024

SGS Economics and Planning ABS Article

The end of March marked every demographer’s favourite day of the year – the annual Australian Bureau of Statistics population dataset release for Australia’s capital cities and regions. We have already delved into the dataset, and one clear message has emerged: overseas migration is making a remarkable comeback.

Growth in all major capital cities was overwhelmingly driven by overseas migration, which eclipsed the net internal migration losses seen everywhere but in Brisbane and Perth. Overall, the surge in overseas migration added a record-setting 528,500 people to Australia’s population over the 2022-2023 financial year. The country’s two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, continue to be the preferred destinations for overseas migrants, taking in around twice as many over the 12 months as they did pre-COVID.

Many of these arrivals are international students whose migration patterns significantly contribute to the exceptionally high net overseas migration of 2022-2023. One reason net overseas migration is so large is simply fewer departures in the last year due to fewer arrivals in the preceding COVID years. This, combined with a return to a ‘normal’ level of arrivals, results in a high net overseas migration for the period. It’s no surprise then that Carlton, located in inner Melbourne and close to two major university campuses, had the largest net overseas migration gain of any suburb in Australia and that the City of Melbourne was the fastest-growing LGA in Australia for 2022-2023.

With further investigation, a few other areas stand out. One of those was Brimbank, located in Melbourne’s west. In the Brimbank LGA, there are still nearly 11,000 fewer residents (Figure 1) than before the pandemic in 2019. The population decline is, by far, the largest of any LGA in the country. It is also a notable outlier in the region. In contrast, the neighbouring LGAs of Melton and Wyndham are the second and fifth fastest-growing LGAs from 2019-2023, with the nearby LGA of Mitchell not far behind in the eighth position.

Figure 1: Total population, Brimbank LGA, 2001-2023

The population in Brimbank had already begun to plateau from 2017, following the steady urban expansion around the older settlements of Sunshine, St Albans, and Keilor in the 1970s-80s and the development of Taylors Lakes, Cairnlea, and other growth areas in the two decades that followed.

Before COVID, positive net overseas migration offset negative net internal migration. However, during the pandemic, patterns of outward internal migration continued without replacement by overseas migrants. It has only rebounded to positive levels in the last year, with net overseas migration returning strongly (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Components of population change, Brimbank LGA, 2017-2023
SGS Economics and Planning ABS Legend 01

Brimbank’s age profile also sets it apart from its neighbours. Compared with Melton, Wyndham, and Hume, it is less family-aged, with fewer children in particular and parents 30 to 49 years old (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Age distribution comparison, Brimbank and other western growth area LGAs, 2021

Internal migration patterns indicate that those aged 20 to 40 are leaving Brimbank (Figure 4), primarily moving to Melton or Wyndham (Figure 5).

Figure 4: Outbound migration by age group, Brimbank LGA, 2016-2021
Figure 5: Destination of outbound migrants from Brimbank LGA, 2016-2021

This suggests that Brimbank is at a point where young adults are driving net internal migration losses, moving away to form new households in neighbouring growth areas while their parents stay. This is reinforced by the change in household composition from 2011-2021, where households with couples and children have declined, lone-person households have increased, and others have remained stable (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Household composition 2016-2021, Brimbank LGA

While the scale of Brimbank’s losses is somewhat phenomenal, its overall patterns of net internal migration and net overseas migration in recent years have not been. Instead, they reflect its position as a middle-ring LGA whose communities have matured, where children follow their parents’ footsteps and move to newer growth fronts to start their own families or move closer to the CBD, aligning with their lifestyle preferences. With borders open and a steady flow of overseas arrivals, these departures are typically replaced. This balance has already been restored in Brimbank in the last year, indicating that Brimbank will likely continue to grow over the long term, with cyclical fluctuations in the components of change and age structure.

Understanding these nuances is critical to interpreting data, planning, and projecting changes. They reveal an unfolding population narrative that is far more complicated than often thought: “The pandemic led to a downturn, and now things are slowly getting back to normal”— the pandemic years temporarily disrupted more complex dynamics that were already well underway before COVID occurred and will more significantly drive long-term change.

This closer look at Brimbank demonstrates these deeper structural issues in the demographic characteristics of some Melbourne communities that the pause in overseas arrivals only exposed. These areas risk serving as kind of ‘bridging communities’ where many can’t or don’t want to live beyond one generation.

How we address these challenges has little to do with short-term ‘COVID recovery’ measures. Instead, it goes back to the fundamentals of good planning. New communities must have more to offer than housing affordability and choices for young families. They should strive to be 20-minute neighbourhoods with access to local education and employment opportunities for various ages and skill sets. They should prioritise local infrastructure and services that build a sense of community connection and pride, as well as other amenities that can sustain these communities of residents for generations to come.

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SGS Economics and Planning Liz Webster
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