Australia’s changing population

Joanne Simon-Davies, Statistics and Mapping

Key issue
The Australian population reached 22,906,400 in December 2012, an increase of 394,200 (or 1.8%) on the previous year. Net overseas migration now plays a larger role than natural increase in population growth in Australia. Western Australia saw the biggest increase in population at a state and territory level in the year to December 2012.

Australia’s population

Growth in Australia’s population is made up of two components:

  • natural increase—births minus deaths and
  • net overseas migration (NOM)—the net gain or loss of population through immigration to Australia and emigration from Australia. This can include both permanent and long-term (staying 12 months or more within a 16-month period) arrivals and departures.

The relative contribution of these two components has changed. For example, in 2002 natural increase represented 51% of Australia’s population growth and NOM 49%. By 2012, natural increase represented only 40% of Australia’s population growth with NOM at 60%. Interestingly, the increase in NOM in recent years has not been caused by an increase in permanent settlers. Rather, it has been driven by people staying in Australia on long-term temporary visas, such as overseas students and temporary skilled migrants. NOM peaked in 2008 at 315,687 people, but by 2010 it had declined to 172,038 people. By 2012, NOM had again risen to 235,914 people. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship projects further increases in NOM over the foreseeable future, largely resulting from growth within temporary programs.

Annual population growth rate: Australia, 1992 to 2012Annual population growth rate: Australia, 1992 to 2012

Components of population change in the states and territories

At the state and territory level, population growth has three components—natural increase, NOM and net interstate migration (NIM).

Net interstate migration is defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) as the difference between the number of persons who have changed their place of usual residence by moving into a given state or territory and the number who have changed their place of usual residence by moving out of that state or territory during a specified time period. This difference can be either positive or negative.

All states and territories experienced positive growth in the year to December 2012, with Western Australia (WA) recording the biggest growth (3.5%) and Tasmania the lowest growth (0.1%). According to the ABS, the make-up of that growth varied between states and territories:

For the year ended 31 December 2012, natural increase was the major component of population change in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Net overseas migration was the major component of population change in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. A net interstate migration loss was the highest contributor to population change in Tasmania. Net interstate migration losses were also recorded in New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

WA is growing faster than any other state or territory. Between 1992 and 2004, there was steady annual growth of around 1.5%. Between 2004 and 2008, the rate of growth increased from 1.5% to 3.5% due to increased mining activity. However, during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the annual population growth slowed to 2.4% in 2010 and then increased to 3.5% in 2012 (see Graph). Interestingly, the Northern Territory (with a much smaller population) has shown a similar pattern to WA in recent years, although the growth has been much more substantial, rising from a negative position (-0.1%) in 2002 to 2.7% in 2008. However, during the GFC more than half the growth gained was then lost, falling to 1.1% in 2011. From 1998 to 2002, Queensland had the highest average annual growth rate of all states and territories. This was most likely due to an increase in mining activity.

Annual population growth rate: Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, 1992 to 2012Annual population growth rate: Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, 1992 to 2012

Interstate migration

People move from one location to another for various reasons, such as employment, retirement, family or study. In 2012, a total of 327,523 people moved from one state or territory to another. This was a decrease of 3.9% from the number who moved in the previous year. In the year ending December 2012, WA, Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory all gained from NIM whilst all other states and territories experienced losses.

Over the decade to December 2012, Queensland was the only state to consistently record an annual NIM gain. However, the size of that gain has slowed from 37,437 people in 2002 to only 11,354 people in 2012. This contrasts with New South Wales and South Australia which have had no gains in NIM in the past ten years.

Net internal migration by state and territory, 2002, 2006 and 2012


The future

Australia’s population can be expected to continue to grow and there is no doubt that migration will play a significant role in that growth. As a consequence of this, population growth will remain a challenge for policy makers at all levels of government, particularly in relation to housing, transport, service delivery, infrastructure and environmental sustainability.

Note: ABS information in this article and statistical information in the charts and the table is from the ABS publication, Australian Demographic Statistics, Dec 2012, cat no. 3101.0. 

Further reading 

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Australian demographic statistics, Dec 2012, cat no. 3101.0, ABS, Canberra, 2013.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Migration, Australia, 2010–11, cat no. 3412.0, ABS, Canberra, 2012.

J Phillips, M Klapdor and J Simon-Davies, Migration to Australia since Federation: a guide to the statistics, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 29 October 2010.

J Phillips and H Spinks, Skilled migration: temporary and permanent flows to Australia, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 6 December 2012.

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