Insights

New data demonstrates how Australia’s population growth is responding to the pandemic

Posted March 31, 2022

SGS Economics and Planning Popgrowth

Over the last few decades, Australia has seen population growth largely concentrated in and around a few major capital cities, as people were attracted to increasing economic and service opportunities. This has placed huge pressure on these cities to keep up with growth and provide adequate infrastructure and services for the new residents.

However, since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen dramatic shifts in the components of population growth. SGS has tracked annual population growth in capital cities and regions over the past five years to better understand how the impacts of COVID-19 have changed the spatial trajectory of population growth in Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently released the latest population data for the financial year 2020-21 which illustrates the short-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on population growth and settlement patterns across Australia.

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Annual population growth, capital cities

The chart above illustrates the annual population growth for each of the capital cities over the last five years.

However, with the introduction of border closures and lockdowns since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the capital cities across Australia experienced a reduction in growth in 2020-21 driven by a reduction in net overseas migration as well as changes in regional migration patterns.

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Net overseas migration, national

National net overseas migration changed significantly following the COVID-19 pandemic, decreasing from 263,000 in the financial year 2016-17, to -88,000 in 2020-21. This was driven by a significant decline in temporary visitors, students, and working holiday visa holders.

This reduction in net overseas migration impacted Melbourne and Sydney most significantly. 85 per cent and 67 per cent of their population growth between 2016-2020 were contributed by net overseas migration respectively.

Reductions in net internal migration also significantly impacted Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne’s population decline of 60,500 was made up of 54,400 overseas and 33,500 internal migration losses against natural growth of 27,400. Meanwhile, Sydney’s population decline of 5,200 was made up of 7,200 overseas and 34,800 internal migration losses against natural growth of 36,900.

With fewer lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, other capital cities conversely saw an increase in population; Brisbane increased by 21,900 and Perth increased by 16,169. Net internal migration had a significant impact on this with 15,000 people moving from within Australia to Brisbane, and 6,500 people moving from within Australia to Perth.

The economic gravity of these major cities is still strong and forecasts by the Centre for Population illustrate that net overseas migration and population growth are expected gradually bounce back over the next few years and return to pre-pandemic levels around 2025, illustrating that these impacts are only ‘temporary ’. Consideration of how the population will grow over the upcoming decades may require a review of major infrastructure plans and projects.

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Annual population growth, regional areas

Changes to population in regional areas outside of the metropolitan area of each capital city exhibit a different story as metropolitan residents relocated to regional towns during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

  • Regional population growth is dominated by growth in NSW, Victoria, and Queensland.
  • Prior to the pandemic, population growth was proportionally much lower in regional cities compared to their respective capital cities.
  • In 2020-21, population grew more in the regional areas of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania compared to their respective capital cities.
  • Net internal migration increased significantly during the pandemic as city dwellers moved to regional areas. Prior to the pandemic in 2018-19, 3,500 people moved internally to Regional NSW; this increased to 18,000 in 2020-21. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, 9,900 people moved to Regional Victoria in 2018-19 which increased to 15,200 in 2020-21.
SGS Economics and Planning Pop Growth Melbourne
2020-21 population % growth by Local Government Area, Greater Melbourne and surrounding regional areas

The map above depicts the spatial shifts in population across Greater Melbourne and beyond. The largest decline in population occurs in the inner LGAs, notably Melbourne, Port Philip, and Stonnington with a shift in preference away from inner-city living. Significant declines are also observed around universities, such as Monash, which experienced losses in international students during the pandemic. With a large shift towards working and studying from home during the pandemic, enforced by the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, further analysis of commuting patterns and usage of current road and rail infrastructure should be conducted to determine the need for future infrastructure projects.

SGS Economics and Planning Pop Growth Sydney
2020-21 population % growth by Local Government Area, Greater Sydney and surrounding regional areas

The map above depicts the spatial shifts in population across Greater Sydney and beyond. The largest decline in population occurs in the inner LGAs, notably Sydney, Mosman, Willoughby, and North Sydney . Sydney also had a significant number of days in lockdown during 2021 causing a shift towards working from home. Commuting patterns and usage of current road and rail infrastructure should be analysed to determine the need for future infrastructure in the inner-city.

What next?

This data release only captures movements up until June 2021 (when both Melbourne and Sydney were in the middle of lockdowns). It will be critical to continue to monitor how these shifts evolve over the coming months and years as we move out of the initial phase of the pandemic. Will we see these new migration patterns become ‘locked-in’ or will people snap back to the big cities once we return to a new normal? It’s likely we will end up somewhere in the middle as long-running changes in how, where, when we work and play have been accelerated through technology and new hybrid working models. This will take some (while not much) of the growth pressure of our big cities and will present a range of opportunities for high amenity regional areas that can still connect to these economic gateways.


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SGS Economics Planning Joseph Giang
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Joseph Giang

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