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Australians are on the move - big time

By Paul Collits - posted Friday, 10 May 2013


Population mobility is a much under-discussed but hugely important issue for regional Australia. I think it is important for all sorts of regions, whether rural, remote, sea change, or peri-metropolitan, to understand the dynamics and decision processes of the many people who are moving around this country in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics brought out a very interesting document in January called Perspectives on Regional Australia – Population Growth and Turnover in Local Government Areas 2006-11. Not a terribly sexy title, to be sure, but in fact pretty interesting. It charts not just population growth but also the numbers of people who come to, and leave, each LGA. I think many people would be amazed at just how much "churn" (flow, or turnover) there is, even in areas that, on the surface, appear to have stable populations with not much overall growth or decline. (Population growth measurement reflects births, deaths, in-migrants and out-migrants).

We already know we are a very mobile country. Mobility is one of the five global "megatrends" identified in the CSIRO's Our Future World report. Moving is on the rise. Between 2001 and 2006, 6.6 million Australians moved, or one third of the population. Admittedly, many of these moves were within cities and regions and involved no great distance. Yet 1.9 million people moved to a different city or region. Australians move on average 11 times in their lives.

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Back to the ABS report. I first had a look at my own region, the Fraser Coast first. This is an interesting region, for like other sea change and retirement destinations, it relies for employment growth and income on a steady inflow of new people and the capacity to retain skilled professionals and entrepreneurs.

I found that the population grew between censuses from 84 339 to 95 310, at a rate of 2.5% per year. Very good growth. We had 20 054 new arrivals. That is a lot. But we also had 12 233 people leaving. That too is a lot. In all 32 287 people either were here in 2006 then left, or were not here in 2006 then came. This is around a third of the population of Fraser Coast "turning over". A third of us are different from the people who were here five years earlier (me included).

Is this a larger population flow figure than the 2001-06 period for the same region? Actually, no, despite the recent economic downturn.

Then, we had different local government boundaries, so I checked the figures for both Maryborough and Hervey Bay. In Maryborough, the population grew from 24 033 to 25 701, an increase of 1.4% per annum. 5 678 new people came, and 5 044 left. This made for a population churn of 10 722. For Hervey Bay, the population grew from 41 484 to 52 219, or a staggering 4.7% per year. 16 369 new people came, while 7 806 left. This added up to a population churn of 24 175. Adding the two, the region received 22 047 new arrivals, and

12 850 people left, making a flow of 34 897.

This phenomenon of churn is repeated in local government areas all over Australia, in cities and regions, in low population growth areas and in high population growth areas. Some places are more prone to churn, like mining areas and inner cities. Others, like older outer suburbs of cities, are more stable. But there is substantial churn everywhere.

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What the population churn figures do not tell us is who is coming and leaving, and why, but we can guess in many cases. Many people come to sea change regions for retirement, of course. And young people leave all kinds of rural regions to go to the city for the three Es – education, employment and excitement. These things easily explain both arrivals and departures. But something else is going on. A large number of people come to regional areas for employment. Non metro regions are not "career escalators" like cities are. Cities build people's wealth through greater opportunities for career escalation, the better chances of creating high dual incomes and likelier large capital growth through housing investments. Moreover, many regional areas have been through a prolonged and severe economic downturn. So many people have left their regions to obtain work elsewhere, for example in construction.

Regional economies are fragile, and this fragility leads to increased mobility. So too does the ever increasing casualisation of the workforce (there is less tenure in employment and far more short term contract jobs); the increasing premium placed on tertiary education (more now are leaving to go to university); and growing family breakups and less commitment to lifetime relationships. All of this, I think, adds up to a greater propensity to move.

A lot of mobility also comes from life-stage moves triggered by events such as completing school, buying the first property, having children and retiring, and also from a widely shared desire to live near family or friends. These forms of mobility are to be expected, yet workforce and social changes are increasing our mobility. Added to this, though, there now seems to be a new set of triggers for mobility, less predictable and more related to the changing economic fortunes of regions.

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About the Author

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland and is Research Director of the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration at the University’s Fraser Coast Campus.

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