As Australia’s population hits 25m, regions cry out for skilled migrants

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With the Australian population set to tick past 25 million people at about 11pm on Tuesday, the government is seeking to encourage new migrants to live and work outside Sydney and Melbourne.

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Of the 111,000 new skilled migrants who arrived in Australia last year – the largest cohort of permanent arrivals – 87% settled in the two biggest cities. The minister for citizenship and multicultural affairs, Alan Tudge, was due to argue in a speech on Tuesday for a greater geographic spread of migration, to relieve pressure on housing and infrastructure.

“If the population was distributed more evenly, there would not be the congestion pressures that we have today in Melbourne and Sydney,” the text of his speech to the Business Council said. “However, at the moment, nearly all the migration is to our two largest cities.

“Meanwhile, we have other parts of Australia wanting more people. South Australian premier Steven Marshall, for example, has said that they would like an additional … 15,000 migrants a year. I have regional mayors telling me they want hundreds more in their area. The Warrnambool Standard in western Victoria recently had as their front-page headline: ‘Wanted – 1,000 workers.’”

Tudge’s speech reiterated the government’s position that Australia depends on a significant skilled migrant intake, citing Treasury figures that show a 1% increase in population correlates with a 1% increase in GDP. Migrants add to the tax base, fill employment gaps and bring down the median working age.

“We want the best and brightest from the around the world,” the speech said. “We need to not just be open to facilitating skilled migrants coming here, but in the case of the global super talent, actively seeking them out.”

But Tudge said the government was looking at formal programs to push migration to regional areas where there was demand for particular skills.

Customised labour agreements – negotiated directly between a business bringing in workers and the Department of Home Affairs – would be extended to cover specific regional areas as “designated area migration agreements”, he said.

“That is, entering boutique arrangement with business leaders in a defined geographical region when the region clearly has requirements which are different to the national ones. Far north Queensland is a good example, as is the Western Australian goldfields. These negotiated agreements will cover all industries and positions where there are identified and proven shortages.”

The Bureau of Statistics has calculated that Australia’s population will tick past 25 million late on Tuesday. Accounting for births, deaths, arrivals and departures, a new person is added to the population every 83 seconds.

Australia has consistently surpassed population predictions.

In 1998 the ABS predicted that, based on assumptions of low growth, the population would reach 23.5 million by 2051. That figure was reached in July 2014, 33 years early.

In four intergenerational reports, the Productivity Commission has underestimated population growth. In 2002, Australia was not predicted to reach 25 million people until 2032. In 2007, it was predicted to reach that mark in 2024.

The 2015 report was significantly updated with a new projected migration rate to meet the actual rate of growth.

Last year’s permanent migration intake was 163,000, the lowest figure in a decade and significantly down from the 190,000 it had been since 2012.

Australia’s migration program has undergone a seismic shift in the two decades since the beginning of John Howard’s prime ministership, with several key trends emerging:

  • A huge increase in the annual permanent migration intake – from 85,000 in 1996 to more than 200,000 in some years this century

Permanent migration to Australia

  • The emergence of India and China as by far the largest sources of migrants
  • The movement away from family migration to skilled migration targeting national workforce needs. In 1996 family migration was about two-thirds of the program, and skilled one-third. Those proportions are now reversed.
  • A huge increase in temporary migration – through short-term work visas and international students.
  • The rise of “two-step migration”, where those on short-term visas (usually work or student visas) gain permanent residency.
  • The emergence of migration, rather than natural increase (births) as the primary driver of population increase.
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