Launch of the Australian Government's Centre for Population

Today, I am launching the new Centre for Population, to be based inside of Treasury.

This Centre was in the May budget with funding starting in July of this year.  It will soon be at full capacity of about 20 staff.

The Centre will become the primary location for all population related matters inside the Australian Government and will work closely with the states and territories, academics and think tanks in order to share data, research, ideas and expertise on population.

Australia has a fast growing population - more than double the OECD average - which has supported our economic growth but in recent years has put pressure on our big capital cities.

The Centre will provide data and policy analysis to support the following broader objectives:

  1. To support Australia’s economic growth;
  2. To ensure the liveability of our cities and ongoing strength of our regions;
  3. To achieve a more optimal settlement pattern in Australia; and
  4. To ensure Australia remains united and together as a people.

In the immediate term, it will focus on particular tasks to support these objectives, including integrating data, better forecasting, greater transparency and initial research. I discuss these further below.

Background

Australia has done well from our population settings over the decades. Our population growth, and the migration settings that support it, have been key drivers of our economic growth, both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis.  It has made a significant impact on our workforce participation rate as well as our productivity. Treasury has estimated that a sixth of our per capita wealth over the last 40 years has been due to population factors.

It has also made our cities larger, more vibrant and diverse, and supported opportunities for younger people that previously weren’t always present.

But this growth has put pressure on the liveability of our cities, especially when infrastructure, housing approvals and services have not kept pace. This has been the case over the last decade or two in Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent in South East Queensland. These three locations constitute 75 percent of the entire nation’s population growth. 

In recent years, we have also experienced regional areas that have struggled to find the workers for the available jobs. The leaders of smaller cities, such as Adelaide’s, Darwin’s and Perth’s have aspirations for faster population growth.

Last year the Prime Minister established a new Population portfolio inside of Treasury with the aim of addressing some of these challenges while supporting our economic growth.  We outlined an initial Population Plan which reduced our migration rate, encouraged more growth in the regions and smaller cities and boosted congestion busting infrastructure.  Importantly, it foreshadowed working more closely with the states and territories to integrate the differing responsibilities that each level of government has.  COAG agreed to establish a Population Planning Framework which is being considered by Treasurers in October and Leaders in December.

The Centre, however, becomes the critical component to all of this on an ongoing basis. 

Initial tasks of the Centre

In supporting the broader objectives, the Centre will be focused initially on four tasks.

First, on integrating and sharing population data from across the Commonwealth and, should the states agree at COAG later this year, from within their jurisdictions as well. Even within the Australian Government, there are data sets from at least 8 different agencies that are not adequately coordinated and integrated.

This includes bringing together data from the ABS, the Treasury (used to inform the Budget and the Intergenerational Reports), Department of Home Affairs, Department of Education (in terms of student populations and policy), the Department of Health and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (population projections for States and Territories to inform aged care policy), the Department of Social Services (for social security and housing support planning), and Department of Infrastructure (for transport and other related forecasts).

Second, it will undertake better forecasting and annually track actual data against the forecasts. Population projections and forecasts have often been inaccurate and not aligned. This has made it more difficult for local and state governments to plan accordingly.

For example, the ABS projected Melbourne would grow by 500,000 people between 2004 and 2018. Actual growth was almost three times that at 1.3 million.

Federal, state, territory and local governments use differing assumptions for population projections, sometimes relying on different data sets between them which adds complexity. At the local level, projections are typically provided by state and territory governments using ABS data, however many local governments also compile their own projections.

Within one state jurisdiction, it was reported to me that that the aggregate of each of the sub-regional forecasts was 12 percent different to the state wide forecast.

The Centre is tasked with improving the reliability of forecasts.This will include taking over responsibility of forecasting net overseas migration. This now means that all components of population growth forecasts and projections for the Budget will be in one location.

As well as forecasting, it will track the actual data against the forecasts. This will ensure governments are better equipped to make informed recommendations about a range of matters, including for the allocation of government resources.

The third task will be to create greater transparency over population data to support better planning. The Centre’s work will culminate each year in an annual National Population Statment, the first of which will be released in 2020.

Developed in partnership with states and territories, the Statement will be an overarching document capturing the population landscape in our country including composition, distribution, and broader demographic trends. This will include population data against other key inputs such as housing approvals.

It will assist all levels of government and our community better understand how our populations are changing from the national level through to our smaller regional towns. It will also look at the way our population estimates from previous years have compared to actual growth, to improve future estimates.

Bringing all of this together for the first time, the Statement will be the basis for analysing how our population is changing and how to continue to best address these changes.

A new website has also been established to provide a single home for the Centre’s work and the Government’s population analysis and research. This will be a repository for key information and will ensure the community has ready access to the latest population insights.

The Centre is also working closely with the Australian Bureau of Statistics and with the academic community to identify ways to improve the visibility of population data even further.

The fourth task of the Centre will be to undertake key pieces of research.  It will focus immediately on two items: population drivers and population distribution.

Each state, territory, city and town has its own population story. The Centre will look carefully at the drivers of population growth in Australia and how they differ across the country. This is fundamental to understanding what our future population will look like.

For example, net overseas migration has been the dominant factor in Melbourne’s recent population growth, while net internal migration plays a larger role than overseas migration in regional Victoria. Similarly in Sydney, where nearly all the population growth has been from net overseas migration, while net interstate migration is negative. It is imperative these differences are analysed and understood.

The Centre will look at the composition of population growth across Australia and explain the elements and underlying factors which drive this growth. Building this strong evidence base will inform better population projections which will in turn help all levels of government and the community with planning and policy development.

Related to this will be research to better understand the distribution of our population and the role policy can play – factors which influence where people choose to live, both now and into the future. It will develop insights into why people choose to settle where they do, when and why some people choose to move and how policy impacts those decisions.

By executing on the tasks and research priorities outlined, the Centre for Population will support the Government’s Population Plan and help us to better plan for Australia’s future.