Population change in Australia. Telling it like it is – one place at a time

Population change in Australia. Telling it like it is – one place at a time

This year I’ve published several blogs that look at the impact of COVID-19 on population change.

These have considered the impact of travel restrictions on overseas migration, as this is the driver of population growth in Australia.

However internal migration is an important driver of change within Australia.

The ABS recently released provisional estimates of internal migration for the period up to June 2020.

This data will feed into the regional population estimates for 2019-2020, providing insights into the numbers that will be released in March 2021.

What are the highlights of this latest release, and what does this mean for population change?

Interstate migration trends 2009-10 to 2019-20

Despite a myriad of COVID related travel restrictions and border closures, interstate and intrastate movement has still been possible in 2020.

These restrictions were imposed after March 2020, and the impacts are ongoing.

Overall, the total number of interstate movements in the March and June 2020 quarters was around 15{c8b66c61d036f6ef577ebb4000d6f98acefd4039e69613ab9f29a3541d0a44dc} lower than the same period in 2019.

The graph below shows net interstate migration for each state and territory over the last ten years.

Net Interstate Mign 2009 10 To 2019 20

The two states dominating the chart do so for different reasons.

Over many years, Queensland has consistently recorded net interstate migration gain, whereas NSW tends to lose population to other states and territories.

QueenslandQueensland has gained an increasing net volume of people through interstate of migration since 2013-14.

In 2019-2020, the net gain was 25,350 persons, the highest level recorded since 2005-06.

In contrast, the net volume of people leaving NSW has been increasing since 2014-15, and for the last three years the net loss has exceeded 20,000 persons per annum.

It does appear that higher volumes of net interstate migration gain in Queensland are mirrored through higher losses from NSW.

However, this is not surprising as NSW does tend to lose population to Queensland.

As a result, trends in each state tend to influence the other.

Most states and territories did not show significant changes in interstate migration patterns in the first half of 2020.

The major exception was Victoria.

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Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, Victoria gained in excess of 10,000 persons through net interstate migration. Although the volume has been declining since 2016-17, the decline in 2019-2020 was steep.

The net gain for the year was just 2,240 persons.

This was driven by a net loss of more than 3,000 persons in the June quarter alone.

The provisional internal migration data is distinctive in that the major impacts on the numbers appear to be confined to Victoria.

This occurred despite all states and territories being subject to COVID related restrictions in some form in the first half of 2020.

By mid 2020, restrictions were being lifted across Australia, fuelling speculation that the pandemic was only short term in nature.

The difference was that Victoria was the only state where a second wave of infections, and a second, much stricter lockdown occurred.

It’s easy to attribute the dire internal migration numbers to Victoria’s lockdown.

However the second wave did not accelerate until July 2020 ie after the reference period for this data, and the lockdown did not take effect until early August.

It raises the question as to why the data shows major impacts on internal migration to, from and within Victoria before the second wave took hold.

Melbourne VirusThere has been much speculation and anecdotes about people leaving Melbourne for their holiday homes, and it’s also possible that grey nomads heading north for the winter are more prominent in the quarterly data.

It’s important to remember that this data is provisional, and will not be finalised until it’s released in March 2021.

The ABS states that some internal migration moves counted in this release may have occurred after June.

In that respect, the impact on the Victorian internal migration numbers makes more sense.

On the other hand, if the numbers are correct, then one can only imagine what numbers will be recorded in the September 2020 quarter.


For several years, Melbourne has been Australia’s fastest growing city.

This has been driven by higher levels of net overseas migration, and in recent years, net gains from interstate have also been important.

However, the story has changed in 2019-20.

Melbourne has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, enduring a second lockdown from July as infection numbers rose rapidly.

As mentioned above, although Melbourne was unique in enduring a second wave, this did not occur until after June 2020.

The graph below shows the net gain in population to Melbourne through interstate and intrastate (ie regional Victoria) migration.

Melb Interstate And Intrastate Mign

In the last ten years, Melbourne has consistently gained people through interstate migration.

This peaked at 17,060 in 2016-17 and has been declining since.

This decline accelerated in 2019-20 when a net gain of 3,740 was recorded.

Melbourne Lockdown

However, the annual figure belies a net loss of more than 2,000 people in the June 2020 quarter alone.

On the other hand, Melbourne loses people to regional Victoria through intrastate migration ie more people move from Melbourne to regional Victoria than the other way.

The volume has been increasing since the mid-2010s, possibly driven by declining housing affordability and lifestyle opportunities.

The internal migration figure recorded in 2019-20 (-14,480) was marginally higher than the 2017-18 figure of -14,320.

However, in 2019-20 there was a loss of almost 6,000 persons in the June quarter alone.

So where did these people go?

The data shows that, aside from regional Victoria, Greater Melbourne lost people mainly to regional Queensland (net -1,010 persons), Brisbane (-490) and regional NSW (-462).

While it’s tempting to think that the net loss of population from Melbourne is related to the lockdown, and some commentators have suggested there is a mass exodus out of Melbourne, the fact remains that all parts of Australia were subject to various COVID-19 related restrictions, so it’s unlikely that the impacts would be felt in one specific location.

The ABS has scheduled another release of this data in February 2021 which hopefully will provide further insights.

Who is leaving Melbourne?

The age profile of internal migrants provides further insights into their characteristics.

The graph below shows the net gain by age in Greater Melbourne, comparing the June 2019 and 2020 quarters.

Net Mign By Age Melb June 2019 And 2020

The difference between 2019 and 2020 is quite stark.

In the June 2019 quarter, Greater Melbourne gained 150 people through net internal migration from other parts of Australia.

In total there were 23,660 arrivals and 23,510 departures.

Fitzroy In MelbourneNet gains in population were recorded for 15-24 and 25-44 year olds.

Many of these people move to Melbourne for employment, education and other life style reasons.

On the other hand, there were net losses in the other age groups.

In the June 2020 quarter, there was a net loss of almost 8,000 people to other parts of Australia, and losses were recorded in all age cohorts.

The net loss consisted of 17,060 arrivals and 25,020 departures.

So despite reports of a mass exodus from Melbourne, the increase in the number of departures between the June 2019 and 2020 quarters was 6{c8b66c61d036f6ef577ebb4000d6f98acefd4039e69613ab9f29a3541d0a44dc}.

However, arrivals declined by 28{c8b66c61d036f6ef577ebb4000d6f98acefd4039e69613ab9f29a3541d0a44dc} over the same period, indicating that it was the drop in arrivals that drove the net loss through internal migration.

This goes against the grain of popular perception as it’s actually people not moving to Melbourne that drove the loss of population through internal migration.


COVID-19 continues to have a major impact on population change.

MigrationThe ongoing release of data from the ABS provides insights that would not normally be available on such a regular basis.

However, it’s important to remember that this data is provisional and is subject to the final checks and balances undertaken by the ABS.

This data release shows the dire impact on population change in Melbourne – a city that has grown strongly until very recently.

These numbers indicate that people are not moving to Melbourne at the same level they have in the recent past and that there has been a 6{c8b66c61d036f6ef577ebb4000d6f98acefd4039e69613ab9f29a3541d0a44dc} increase in the numbers leaving Melbourne for other parts of Australia.

However the data also raises some questions, particularly why Melbourne was so impacted in the first half of 2020, when the more severe lockdown occurred after this data was collected, and why other cities didn’t show similar trends.

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