Australia’s population

Useful articles:

Quick facts:

  • Australia’s population is growing very fast for a developed country, and faster than the global population. The average growth rate over the past half-century was around 1.4% per annum, but in 2009 it exceeded 2% per annum. If we continue in this way, our population will double every 40-50 years.
  • Australia is a dry continent with insufficient water and fertile soil for a large population. Most of Australia’s capital cities are now depending on desalination for water security in droughts, and exports of irrigated crops have been reduced. Beyond 30 million people, Australia may not be food-secure in drought years.
  • More than half of Australia’s population growth is due to immigration. The rest is due to ‘natural increase’ (births minus deaths). Around half of the natural increase is due to births to migrants.
  • Tens of thousands of people emigrate from Australia each year. Lately, the number has been around 80,000. We could receive a similar number of immigrants without adding to our population.
  • When the number of immigrants roughly equals the number of emigrants, we would have ‘zero net migration’. Even then, it would take several decades for Australia’s population to stop growing due to natural increase, and we would add two to three million more people (depending on the average family size).
  • Australia’s population growth rate is largely controlled by the federal government through immigration quotas and incentives to have babies.
  • Refugees have made up only 5-10% of Australia’s immigration in recent years. Australia has been resettling refugees at among the highest per capita rates in the world, and this could continue even with zero net migration.
  • Impacts of rapid population growth include
    • housing unaffordability,
    • unemployment and deteriorating pay and conditions for workers,
    • escalating personal debt levels,
    • congestion of infrastructure including roads, ports, hospitals and schools,
    • government debt due to infrastructure bills,
    • cutbacks in government spending on social programs in order to pay for infrastructure,
    • habitat loss or degradation endangering species and ecosystem services,
    • water insecurity and expensive water options like desalination,
    • loss of fertile soil to housing developments,
    • longer and more costly commutes,
    • more crowded beaches, parks and recreational areas,
    • more regimented and stressful urban lifestyles,
    • less access to green space and fresh air,
    • more pollution, including greenhouse gases,
    • less mineral royalties and other earnings from our natural resources per person,
    • a bigger trade deficit,
    • lower productivity due to congestion and high real estate costs,
    • greater inequality between rich and poor, and less social mobility,
    • the dilution of democracy.



For most of the past decade, Australia has had the highest population growth rate of any developed country apart from Israel. Australia’s growth rate was around 50% higher than North America’s and five times that of Europe (before the recent migrant influx into Europe, but even that does not match Australia’s immigration per capita). We have been adding a million people every 2½ to 3 years – equivalent to a new city the size of Canberra every year.

More than half of this growth has been due to ‘net overseas migration’ (NOM, the surplus of immigrants over emigrants). The rest is due to ‘natural increase’ (the surplus of births over deaths), although much of the natural increase is due to births to immigrants.

Australia’s ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR, the average number of children per woman) fell below 2.1 in 1975, after the popularisation of the contraceptive pill from the 1960s. A TFR of 2.1 is considered to be the ‘replacement rate’, when children are just numerous enough to replace the parents’ generation, allowing for some early deaths. However, natural increase continues for decades after achieving below-replacement fertility, because today’s deaths are mostly among the great-grandparents of today’s babies, and the great-grandparents are less numerous because they had larger families. This continuation of growth is called ‘demographic momentum’.

Since European settlement, Australia’s population grew rapidly through waves of immigration. However, the scale of immigration over the past decade has reached unprecedented levels. The average net immigration for the twentieth century was 52,000 per year. The average for the past decade (to Sept 2015) has been 214,000 per year.

From 2004, the Howard Government embarked on a program to increase population growth. The “baby bonus” was introduced to encourage couples to have more children, supported by a propaganda campaign about the risks of an ageing population. The federal treasurer at the time, Peter Costello famously told Australians to “have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”. In addition, immigration quotas were steadily increased and temporary residence programs for both students and workers were expanded.

The result has been a vast demographic experiment. It was supposed to reduce skills shortages, increase productivity and improve government balance sheets, allowing them to deliver better infrastructure and social services. The opposite has been achieved on all counts. The wider negative impacts have become the leading concerns of Australians in electoral surveys: job insecurity, housing unaffordability and infrastructure congestion. Yet few Australians realise the cause of these escalating stresses.

Before this change in government policy, Australia’s population was on course to stabilise around 25 million (Intergenerational Report 2002-03). A decade earlier, an inquiry by the Australian Academy of Science had concluded, “In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children's lives will be maximized if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.”

The 23 million milestone was passed unheeded in April 2013. The 24th million was achieved by February 2016. If current growth continues, Australia will exceed 40 million by 2050 and 100 million before 2100.

What population path is desirable for Australia?

Sustainable Population Australia argues that the lowest, soonest achievable peak in Australian population is the best outcome for wellbeing of Australians, for biodiversity and environmental integrity, and to maximise our contribution to ending climate change, poverty and conflict globally.

See ‘Global Population’ for discussion of the connections between population growth, poverty and conflict.

It is often argued that migration does not contribute to global population, so efforts to limit global population should not include migration controls. Unfortunately we don’t live in a world with benevolent global governance, which might pursue population stability in a coordinated fashion. We can only lead by example: to demonstrate the benefits of population stabilisation, we must stabilise our own population. In contrast, if our government continues its current habit of talking up false economic benefits of population growth, we severely undermine the commitment of our poorer neighbours, such as Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste, to address their own debilitating population growth and the reproductive rights of their women.

Since 1950, Australia has received some 7 million immigrants, but this represents only one month’s worth of global population growth. In 2015, the world added 89 million people. Almost all the extra people are added to urban slums in the developing world. We can’t reduce poverty by bringing people here. We can only hope to reduce poverty by helping people to live more prosperously and sustainably where they are.

We have a responsibility to protect the endemic species and ecosystems of this continent. We also have responsibility for the social and economic wellbeing of existing Australian residents. These duties should not be compromised in a futile attempt to relieve population pressure elsewhere through immigration to Australia.

However, there are many instances were migration is appropriate and beneficial, and it is possible to have a stable population while accommodating considerable migration. Tens of thousands of people emigrate from Australia each year, which means that tens of thousands can immigrate while still maintaining zero net migration.

In addition, a low birth rate means that there will be more room for migrants to “top up” each generation. If Australia’s fertility rate were allowed to fall to 1.5 children per woman (about two for every couple who want children, and about Europe’s average), we could have a net immigration of around 0.3% of our population annually. This would maintain around the current proportion of people born overseas (about 27%), which is among the highest proportions in the world. Thus it is possible to be very open to foreigners, to have one of the world’s most multicultural societies, and to accommodate a generous refugee program, while still having a stable population. Those who argue we should raise fertility to “replacement level” are the true xenophobes, as they would leave no room for immigrants.

How could Australia achieve lower population growth?

To stabilise Australia’s population soon, we need to reduce immigration and stop promoting larger families. Both are easily achieved by federal government, with minimal impact on any group within the community and vast benefits for government budgets and for the wellbeing of Australians.

Encouraging fewer births

The most common measurement for the birth rate in a country is the ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR) which is the average number of live births a woman will have in her lifetime (technically, if she experienced the same probability of having a child in each of her childbearing years as this year’s women of that age experience). The ‘replacement level’ TFR is often given as 2.1, providing a replacement in the next generation for each parent, allowing for child and youth mortality. In fact, in a country with such low early mortality as Australia’s, replacement fertility is closer to two. This is an academic point, since ‘replacement’ is not the optimum level of fertility for Australia to aim for, at least for many decades to come.

It is common to read highly emotive articles warning of the dangers of low fertility. Hyper-ageing of the population, a shortage of workers or of worker vitality, or an implosion of the population are all claimed. All are gross exaggerations. Fertility as low as 1.5 would cause the age structure to stabilise with less than 10% higher proportion of over-65s than it would if fertility was at replacement. Such a fertility rate, without immigration, would ultimately lead to a slow contraction of population, at a fraction of one per cent per year. This is a much smaller rate of change than we currently accommodate as we grow the population – and growing has much greater costs than shrinking. If immigration were used to top up each generation, a stable population would be achieved, with a higher proportion of ‘working age’ people. It is debatable whether more working age people is actually beneficial, but whether it is or not, there is no significant penalty for low fertility.

The benefit of lower fertility is that it enables population to peak sooner and lower. Even with no net immigration, replacement rate fertility leads to growth for many decades, until the size of the cohort of people reaching the end of their life equals the size of the cohort being born. This is when deaths match births and population growth ends. If some net immigration is desirable, particularly to accommodate refugees, then below-replacement fertility can compensate for this addition. Low fertility is a generous stance for a society to take, not crowding our resources while making space for others to share them.

Modern lifestyles can make it hard to balance the requirements of work and family life. SPA believes it is possible to be generous to families and supportive of working parents without encouraging large families. We merely need to limit government support for parental leave and tax benefits to the first two children. No penalty should apply to families who choose to have more children, but they should not expect the tax-payer to subsidise this choice. (Modern families can be complicated, and an even-handed policy needs to have sufficient flexibility to accommodate this. The death of a child may reinstate entitlement to support for a further birth. A person whose partner has had children with another spouse may be entitled to support for only one child, as would a woman who chooses to parent alone and not name the father on the register of birth.) All children would of course be entitled to the same access to education and health services – it is only payments to parents which would be affected.

The most important impact of these policy changes would be the message they carry, not the financial aspects. When Peter Costello introduced the ‘baby bonus’ with a plea to families to have ‘one for the country’, the message was that procreation was a service to the nation. Many parents with large families still believe this, and that it justifies the fact that they receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes. Limiting parenting payments to the first two children conveys the message that causing population growth is not a service to the nation.

Limiting immigration

The scale of Australia’s immigration program is set annually by the federal government, usually announced in the federal budget. During the mid- to late-2000s, the quotas under most visa categories were increased, and a number of temporary work visa categories were introduced or extended, with effectively uncapped numbers. Most of these changes did not require any legislative change or public debate.

Migration quotas could be reduced just as easily. In the early-1990s, Australia had a net immigration rate from 35,000 to 80,000 per year. The average for the 20th century was 52,000 per year. Returning to this level of immigration would still mean Australia receives more immigrants per capita than most developed countries. This level of immigration would allow Australia’s population to stabilise eventually, but we would add several more millions of people before reaching our peak.

A lower peak could be achieved by rapidly moving to ‘zero net migration’, which means that the number of immigrants would approximately equal the number of emigrants. Each year, around 80,000 people leave Australia to live elsewhere, so around 80,000 immigrants could be accepted while maintaining zero net migration. This is sufficient to maintain Australia’s refugee intakes and multicultural composition, to allow family reunion and recruit specialist workers.

Once population growth has ended, either migration could be increased gradually to maintain a stable population, or the population could be allowed to decline to a lower and more sustainable level.

When it is recognised that further population growth is not in Australia’s interest, these options could be debated. While Australia’s leaders continue to pursue rapid population growth, it is esoteric to argue which are the optimum settings to achieve peak and decline. We only seek to outline the issues to be considered, and dispel popular myths.