Australia’s population: recent changes

Grey Robertson, Statistics and Mapping

Key issue

Australia’s population growth slowed in 2020–21 due to policy and behaviour changes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and this may have affected the age and regional distribution of the Australian resident population. These changes may in turn affect local labour and housing markets, as well as current and future service delivery.

An understanding of the size and structure of Australia’s regional populations and their growth trends is essential to managing the current, and planning the future, delivery of infrastructure and services. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted previous population growth trends and seen changes to population flows. In the 2020–21 data, the long-term trend of more overseas arrivals than departures reversed, and the flows of people moving to capital cities from other parts of Australia also changed. The COVID-19 related changes to population flows outlined here may be short lived or may mark the beginning of new trends.

The Australian Census of Population and Housing (the Census) is the primary source for Australian population figures. Between each Census, Australia’s population is estimated each quarter, by adding natural increase (births minus deaths) and net overseas migration (NOM). Regional population estimates are less frequent and include estimates of internal migration within Australia.

Net overseas migration (NOM) has been the major contributor to Australia’s annual population growth since 2006–07. The change in NOM to more departures than arrivals slowed Australia’s population growth in 2020–21, particularly in locations favoured by overseas migrants such as Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

According to March 2020 to March 2021 data, COVID-19 may have also affected where people chose to live and move to within Australia. Specifically, changes to international and domestic migration flows may have changed the structure of the population at the small region or Commonwealth electorate level without noticeably affecting the Australian population overall. The release of Census 2021 data will assist in making data comparisons more reliable and changes easier to identify.

Recent trends in population growth

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports Australian population growth in the 12 months to June 2021 was entirely due to natural increase adding 134,800 people, while NOM was a loss of 88,800 people.

Table 1            Population change, summary –states and territories year ending June 2021

NSW Victoria Queensland South Australia Western Australia Tasmania Northern Territory ACT Australia
Estimated Resident Population (ERP) 8,189,266 6,649,159 5,221,170 1,773,243 2,681,633 541,479 246,338 432,266 25,739,256
Growth 22,242 -44,699 45,925 2,966 17,421 943 103 1,053 45,989
Growth Rate (%) 0.27 -0.67 0.89 0.17 0.65 0.17 0.04 0.24 0.18
Components of Population Change
Births 97,728 70,654 61,381 19,312 33,772 5,867 3,790 5,420 297,954
Deaths 53,339 40,965 32,029 13,772 15,302 4,529 1,145 2,102 163,202
Natural Increase 44,389 29,689 29,352 5,540 18,470 1,338 2,645 3,318 134,752
Net Interstate Migration -16,676 -18,300 30,939 704 4,592 49 -2,159 851 NA
Net Overseas Migration -5,471 -56,088 -14,366 -3,278 -5,641 -444 -383 -3,116 -88,763

Note: Australia includes Other Territories comprising Jervis Bay Territory, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Norfolk Island

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National, State and Territory Population June 2021 (Canberra: ABS, 2021)

Table 1 shows Victoria’s population decreased in 2020–21 due to reduced internal and overseas migration. The Centre for Population also notes in the 12 months to June 2021, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Darwin experienced negative population growth. The combined capital cities population declined (slightly) for the first time on record.

Overall, this was driven by a large net outflow of 85,000 overseas migrants from capital cities as well as increased internal migration from capital cities to regional areas. Natural increase (births less deaths) was largely unchanged from the previous year.

The latest quarterly data available shows that in addition to Victoria, the NT and ACT populations have declined from September 2020 to September 2021.

Overseas migration by region

For 6 straight quarters (1 April 2020 to 30 September 2021) Australia had more overseas departures than arrivals, due to the international migration and quarantine policies in response to COVID-19. The median age of overseas arrivals has also increased. This may reflect a higher proportion of returning Australians and fewer international students. International student arrivals are starting to recover as at March 2022, but are still 60% lower than at March 2019.

These changed migration flows may have a small effect on the population age structure in locations featuring high numbers of students and young people moving for work. As at June 2020, people aged 20 to 49 years made up 44% of the combined capital city population, compared with 36% elsewhere.

According to the ABS 29.1% of Australia's 2021 population was born overseas, a decrease from 29.8% in 2020. In the 2016 Census more than 30% of WA, Victoria and NSW residents were born overseas, and so are more likely to be affected by overseas migration flows than other states and territories. All capital cities had more overseas migrants leaving than arriving in the year ending June 2021 (see Figure 1). Outside of greater Sydney, NSW experienced more arrivals from overseas than departures in 2020–21, most likely comprising returning Australians.

Figure 1          Capital cities population growth and components of population change 2019 and 2021

Source: ABS Regional Population 2020–21 (Canberra: ABS, 2022) Regional Population 2018–19 (2020).

Internal migration

Other than Brisbane, Perth and Canberra, Australia’s capital cities had negative internal migration in 2021 (Figure 1).

According to the Centre for Population analysis, in every state except WA non-capital city population growth overtook capital city growth. Outside of Greater Sydney and Melbourne, NSW and Victoria’s increased internal migration offset the decreases in overseas migration. The Centre for Population analysis notes the number of capital city residents moving to rest-of-state regions in the year to March 2021 was higher than before the onset of COVID-19 (244,000 departures compared with 230,000 in March 2020) and net migration from cities to rest of states was 44,700 people. Victoria outside of Melbourne overtook Queensland as the fastest growing rest of state region. Queensland regions (particularly the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast) no longer received high levels of overseas migration although these regions still experienced population growth. Provisional regional internal migration estimates (Figure 2) show that after many years of either similar or greater numbers of arrivals, from March 2020 to March 2021 net internal migration to Melbourne had approximately 8,000 more quarterly departures than arrivals.

Perth and Brisbane have seen an increase in internal arrivals over departures from March 2020 although this may have peaked in Brisbane in December 2020. Since 2013, Brisbane has a longer-term trend of more residents arriving from elsewhere in Australia than leaving Brisbane.

Figure 2          Net internal migration 2001–2021; capital cities with the largest net internal migration flows in 2021

Note: Regional internal migration estimates, provisional March 2021 – is a special release from the ABS, funded by the Centre for Population. This release provides quarterly regional internal migration estimates at both the state and Greater Capital City Statistical Area (GSSCA) level. Medicare address updates are used to track internal migration, the ABS June 2021 quarter of Provisional Regional Internal Migration Estimates, has been cancelled due to potential effects of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout on address updates. Issues with Medicare address for the June 2021 and September 2021 quarters are being explored before later estimates can be released.

Source: ABS Regional Internal Migration Estimates, pPovisional March 2021 (Canberra: ABS, 2021) 

Figure 3 allows the comparison of changes in internal migration origins and destinations for the 4 capital cities which experienced the largest internal migration flows between March 2020 and March 2021.

Figure 3          Arrivals and departures by capital city and rest of state for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, March 2020 and March 2021 quarters

Source: ABS Regional Internal Migration Estimates, Provisional March 2021 (Canberra: ABS, 2021)

The Centre for Population’s analysis of ABS Regional Population data compares capital city with non-capital city population change. The analysis includes a map of Melbourne population change from June 2020 to June 2021, showing growth in outer Melbourne.

The Regional population, Australia, 2020–21 analysis notes:

Three of the fastest growing small areas (SA4s) in Australia were in regional areas close to the east coast capital cities. Geelong in Victoria was the second fastest growing SA4, growing at 2.1 per cent in 2020–21, behind only Ipswich in Queensland. The Hunter Valley in New South Wales (2.1 per cent) and the Sunshine Coast in Queensland (1.9 per cent) followed in third and fourth place. (p. 5)

Recent shifts do not appear to have affected regional or remote Australia population distributions, as the shift is from capital cities to other major cities. 

These growth patterns away from capital cities are reflected in Commonwealth electorate population changes. Outer Melbourne and regional Victorian electorates are among those with the greatest increase, while inner city Melbourne electorates and the electorate of Sydney have seen the greatest population decreases.

Table 3            Commonwealth Electoral Divisions (CED) with the largest population changes 2020–2021

State Commonwealth Electoral Division (CED) Change 2020-2021
  no. %
10 CED with the greatest proportional increase
Vic Corangamite 6104 4.3
Vic McEwen 5862 3.7
Vic La Trobe 5425 3.4
NSW Macarthur 6302 3.2
Qld Blair 5614 3.0
NSW Paterson 4727 2.8
Qld Fisher 4425 2.6
Qld Wright 4664 2.6
Qld Fadden 5094 2.6
Vic Lalor 4811 2.5
10 CED with the greatest proportional decrease
Vic Bruce -4332 -2.3
Vic Cooper -3991 -2.3
NSW Sydney -6332 -2.6
Vic Fraser -5181 -2.7
Vic Hotham -6311 -3.0
Vic Chisholm -6170 -3.1
Vic Higgins -5680 -3.3
Vic Kooyong -6418 -3.6
Vic Macnamara -6999 -3.7
Vic Melbourne -15065 -6.3

Source: ABS Regional Population - Estimated Resident Population, Commonwealth Electoral Divisions (ASGS 2021), (Canberra: ABS, 2022).

Future population changes

The Centre for Population –national population projections account for the impact of COVID-19 on overseas migration and include upside and downside NOM scenarios detailed in the 2021 Population statement. Projections of population changes in capital cities and rest-of-state areas are also available.

Capital cities are forecast to return to higher growth rates than rest-of-state areas from 2022–23, as restrictions are relaxed and overseas migration returns. Melbourne is projected to be the fastest growing capital city from 2023–24 onwards, overtaking Sydney to become the nation’s largest city in 2029–30 at just over 5.9 million people. The projections appear to assume that from 2024 Melbourne will have a small but gradually increasing net loss of people from internal migration flows, while Sydney will continue its long-term trend of a more substantial internal migration flow away from the city.

Unfortunately, data is not yet available to gauge the impact of recent changes to migration flows on population structures specifically within smaller regions or at the electorate level. The Estimated Resident Population (ERP) for 2021 by region and internal migration estimates are likely to be revised using data from the 2021 Census.

Accordingly, the 2021 Census results when they become available should provide a better understanding of how COVID-19 related experiences may have affected where people chose to live within Australia.

Further reading

The Australian Government Centre for Population seeks to be the focal point for expertise on population issues and to inform population policy through its research publications, data, forecasts, and analysis.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) 'Profile of Australia’s Population' (snapshot written by the Centre for Population), Centre for Population, December 2021).

Centre for Population (2021), Population Statement, (Canberra: Centre for Population, December 2021).

For detailed discussion of Australia’s population from 1988–89 to 2018–19, see Centre for Population (2021), Population Statement, Canberra: Centre for Population, December 2020).

ABS Regional Internal Migration Estimates, Provisional March 2021 – a special release from the ABS, funded by the Centre for Population. This release provides quarterly regional internal migration estimates at both the state and Greater Capital City Statistical Area (GSSCA) level.

Australian Government, 2021 Intergenerational Report, (Canberra: June 2021). The 2021 Intergenerational Report projects an outlook for the economy and the Australian Government’s budget over the next 40 years including the potential influences of demographic, technological and other structural trends.


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