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Frequently made statements about Australia’s population

By Peter McDonald - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

In recent years, many statements about Australia’s population have been made in a demography-free zone. The demographic reality most often ignored is the powerful impact that low fertility has upon the future size and age distribution of a country. In this article, I shall consider 7 frequently made statements about Australia’s population and comment upon their demographic reliability.

Australia’s population has grown 2 ½ times since 1945. There is no reason at all why we could not grow 2 ½ times again by the middle of the next century.

There is a very substantial reason why Australia’s population will not grow at the same rate in the next 50 years as it has in the past 50 years. In the past 50 years, the fertility rate has been much higher on average than it is likely to be in the next 50 years. In 1961, the Total Fertility Rate (the average number of children that women would have over their lifetime if they experienced the fertility rates of 1961 at each age) was 3.57 children per woman. In 1998, the rate was less than half of this at 1.76 children per woman. If the 1961 rates of fertility at each age had applied in 1998, we would have had 502,000 births in 1998 compared to the 249,000 we actually had. With presently expected trends in fertility, Australia would need a net migration of 460,000 every year for the next 50 years in order to reach a population of 50 million. Our average net migration in the past 50 years and in the past 10 years has been about 80,000 per annum. Increasing our net migration by a factor of six is impossible.


Australia’s population will continue to grow because of our young age structure.

This statement is correct but its impact becomes less significant as the Australian fertility rate falls. At the beginning of the 1990s, even with zero net migration, Australia could expect its population to grow to 23 million with all of the rise from 18 million in 1990 being due to the relatively small number of deaths arising from our young age structure. During the 1990s, the fertility rate has fallen and, on present trends in fertility and mortality, with zero net migration, Australia’s population would rise from 19 million to just 20 million before the population began to fall.

Lower fertility than we have at present does not present a problem, indeed it would have the desirable effect of producing a smaller population.

In the short term, we cannot produce a smaller population that has the same age structure as our present population or anything like it. The problem that arises from a sharp fall in fertility is that the numbers fall at only one part of the age structure, the youngest ages. This leads to a distorted age structure, more rapid ageing, sharp falls in the size of the population of labour force age in the future and a future momentum for population decline as the small birth cohorts reach the child-bearing ages.

With immigration, we can keep our population young.

Our population will age substantially in the next 40 years irrespective of the level of migration in those years. The percentage of the population aged 65 years and over will double from the present 12 per cent. Thus, immigration will not keep our population young. However, when fertility is well below the level that leads to long term replacement of the population, a moderate level of net migration slows ageing of the population to a marginal but worthwhile extent. Given the expected fertility trend, a level of net migration of 80-100,000 per annum would have a beneficial impact on ageing. Higher levels of immigration than this have little impact on the ageing of the population but add large numbers of people.


Government carefully controls our annual level of net migration.

Government has almost no control on the level of permanent and long-term departures from Australia. It has almost no control over the flow of people from New Zealand, It has little control over the entry of spouses of Australian residents. Overall, government has control over only about 10 per cent of the total permanent and long-term movements of people in and out of Australia.

Governments cannot influence the number of children women have.

This statement implies that the number of children that women have is a purely private decision that is not influenced in any way by the way the society is organised. Governments can increase the direct costs of children by reducing tax or social security benefits related to children or by charging the full costs of health or education to parents. Governments can increase the indirect costs of children by making it very difficult for mothers to be in paid employment. Governments can provide the message that children are purely a private responsibility, not a benefit to the whole society. Governments can change the structure of the tax system and base the compensation on a household’s income level rather than upon its responsibilities. It is hardly likely that none of this would have a bearing on the number of children that women will have. In Europe, the countries that provide the highest levels of public benefit to families with children have the highest fertility. If fertility is falling in Australia, this is partly the result of the expansion of child-unfriendly policies.

All the fall in fertility is due to educated women.

Between 1986 and 1996, the fall in fertility was greater for women with no post-school qualifications than for those with a university degree. Falling fertility is a society-wide phenomenon, not the result of the behaviour of any sub-group. This reinforces the notion that falling fertility is related to the ways in which the society as a whole is organised.

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About the Author

Professor Peter McDonald is Coordinator of the Demography Program in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.

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