OPINION

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Popping the population bubble
Much recent debate focuses on immigration numbers and their effect on housing availability. ‘Immigration’ and ‘emigration’ are often used interchangeably, but they are opposites.  ‘Migration’ refers to the movement of people or animals generally. It is clear that one side of politics tends to attribute all sorts of social ills to excessive immigration, often focusing on particular groups in distributing blame.
As Laura Tingle, one of Australia’s more perceptive commentators acknowledged, racism is alive and well in Australia, and it is all too easy to single out people on account of their difference and their visibly different characteristics.
For each quarter of 2023, more people left Tasmania than came to it. For decades, the drift has been from rural areas to the metropolis, but there are clear signs that this process has been reversed, the catalyst being Covid and its lockdowns. Figures show metropolitan to regional relocations have surged in the first quarter of the year and now sit at 20% above the pre-Covid average. It is also evident that regional residents tended to stay in the regions to avoid capital-city lockdowns and their consequences. Tasmania is
a special case.
City dwellers are continuing to set their sights on regional New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, with the eastern states accounting for 97% of net capital city outflows into regional areas in the 12 months to March 2024 –
up from 94% a year ago. Cities are continuing to empty. Regional local government areas on, or near, the sea were this quarter’s top five regional hotspots as measured by annual growth in net internal migration inflows. Tasmania’s population was comparatively static due in part to its small base.
Tasmania’s population growth is projected to decline to 0.13% by 2046 according to demographic consultants Informed Decisions. In real numbers, this would see the population increase from just under 568,000 in 2021 to 629,000 by 2046. This is very slow. At the same time, however, the Tasmanian government is planning for growth with a “fresh population strategy, initiatives to tackle housing affordability, activate the Hobart CBD, and balance an
ageing population”.
The unprecedented growth rates Tasmania experienced between 2017 and 2020 have led to the current shortfalls in housing affordability and infrastructure planning and an unwarranted assumption that this rate of growth can be sustained. However, it slowed during the pandemic, and recent migration data shows young people returning to mainland capital cities once again. Natural increase (the net of births and deaths) is a component of population growth in all parts of Australia. However, forecasts show Tasmania will experience natural decrease within 10 years.
The ABS uses Medicare change-of-address data to inform its net interstate migration estimates, which are then integrated into treasury forecasts.
By average population age, Tasmania is the oldest state in Australia. Its increasing popularity as a retirement destination means it is getting older. This ageing population means there are fewer women in the most fertile age groups.
This, combined with declining fertility rates (women having fewer children) means deaths are forecast to outweigh births in Tasmania within 10 years, making migration (either from interstate or overseas) essential to balance the
ageing population.
Worse than this, the school-aged population (five to 17-year-olds) of Tasmania has been steadily declining since the 1970s. And although a temporary increase is forecast over the next few years (linked to the recent recovery in overseas migration), the continuous departure of young adults to the mainland means there won’t be as many young families forming in Tasmania, resulting in a further decline in the school-aged population. After a period of strong population growth, Tasmania is playing catchup with housing supply, and infrastructure planners are preparing for a new growth paradigm. However, forecasts show this level of growth and population pressure will not be sustained in the longer term.
Where does all this lead? UTAS’s vice-chancellor recently pointed out that, on top of an overall
population decline, lies the nation’s lowest level of year 12 completions. The long-term implications are clear: a fall in the number of university entrants; a decline in the number of tertiary-educated adults, and out-migration of employers of all descriptions. Hardly the kind of optimistic climate in which to contemplate the wholesale reconstruction of the
university, or the patronage necessary to support a major new liability like the stadium, either by way of attendance, or the capacity to repay the investment cost.
We should be planning for a smaller population, not a larger one.
John Fleming II


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