Tasmania’s population puzzle: positive signs but how can we keep up the momentum

This opinion piece by Institute for the Study of Social Change research fellow Lisa Denny first appeared in the Mercury newspaper.

IF we want to encourage more people to come to Tasmania, we first need to understand who is already coming here and why. Then we need to plan for their arrival.

Since 2013 the Tasmanian Liberal Party has had an objective to grow the Tasmanian population to 650,000 by the year 2050, an aim affirmed when the Liberals won government in 2014.

Given that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has charged state and territory governments to “better understand the drivers of growth in particular locations” and the “impacts of the pressure points” to inform an enduring national framework for population planning, it is time to start better understanding the drivers of population change in Tasmania.

Last month’s release of updated Australian Bureau of Statistics population projections also provides an ideal opportunity to reassess the state’s Population Growth Strategy.

The following graph illustrates how Tasmania’s actual growth (yellow line) since 2013 compares with the “most likely” scenario (orange line) projected by the ABS in 2013:

Figure 1. Projected  and actual population, Tasmania, 2013 to 2018 Source: ABS, Population Projections, Australia, 2017 – 2066, Cat. No. 3222.0; Population Projections, Australia, 2012 – 2061, Cat No. 3222.0; Australian Demographic Statistics, March, 2018, Cat. No. 3101.0

Figure 1. Projected and actual population, Tasmania, 2013 to 2018. Source: ABS, Population Projections.

Infographic_pop target
At the Institute for the Study of Social Change, we believe the strategy needs to be updated in light of what we know — and, just as importantly, what we don’t know — about how Tasmania’s population is changing.

For all the talk of Tasmania’s population growth, very little is known about who is moving here and why. This knowledge gap, and the related lack of planning, puts at risk Tasmania’s ability to provide the infrastructure and services required to meet the needs of the growing and changing population.

It also means the state is less able to sustain and build on the current momentum, particularly if increased population growth impacts on the state’s liveability.

What we do know is that since 2015, there has been a shift in the age structure of the population, which has slowed Tasmania’s rate of ageing and, in turn, delayed the point at which Tasmania’s population is likely to start shrinking.

The driver of this has been a change in Tasmania’s migration patterns, particularly from a strong increase in the prime working ages. Although the state is still experiencing a net loss of people aged 15 to 24, this leakage has slowed. Not only is the state attracting more people in younger age groups, it is also losing fewer people in those groups.

What we do not know is who these younger arrivals are, their reasons for coming to Tasmania, or how long they plan to stay. Nor do we understand why fewer younger people are leaving and whether we can rely on this continuing. A failure to understand the causes of these trends — be they temporary factors such as job availability and the economy, or more profound, long-term changes around social values and family structures — poses a risk to any population strategy.

The following graph highlights, in linear terms, a decrease in people leaving Tasmania for other states and arriving in Tasmania from other states:

Figure 6. Arrivals to, and departures from, interstate migration, Tasmania, 1998 to 2017, trend. Source: ABS, Migration, Australia.

Figure 6. Arrivals to, and departures from, interstate migration, Tasmania, 1998 to 2017, trend. Source: ABS, Migration, Australia.

Attempts to slow Tasmania’s rate of ageing are important, but let’s not put our heads in the sand. Population growth is important, provided the net effect of those moving to Tasmania contributes to slowing the increase in the state’s median age.

Despite Tasmania’s growing reputation as a sea-change destination, the structural change in Tasmania’s population has not been sufficient to prevent the state from entering population decline in the long run, as projected under the recent ABS population projections.

As the following graph illustrates, the ABS projects Tasmania will experience virtually no population growth from 2044:

Figure 3. Components of population change, projected 2018 to 2066, Series B, Tasmania Source: ABS, Population Projections, Australia, 2017 – 2066, Cat. No. 3222.0

Figure 3. Components of population change, projected 2018 to 2066, Series B, Tasmania. Source: ABS, Population Projections.

No Growth Infographic_2

Tasmania’s population continues to age at a faster rate than any other state, apart from Western Australia, while New South Wales and Victoria are getting younger (median ages of 37.5 years and 36.8 years respectively).

To prevent eventual population decline and achieve a trajectory for long-term growth, Tasmania would need to achieve a self-sustaining population. In other words, a balance between working and non-working age groups and a population that can replace itself through reproduction.

Working toward such a goal is important, but policy makers and the wider community cannot be complacent and assume recent population growth will address our long-term demographic challenges.

The Tasmanian Government recently committed to developing a comprehensive settlement plan, including future infrastructure and service needs at the local area level, with the objective of enhancing liveability. This commitment is an important step in the planning process.

In the immediate term, population policy needs to address housing and schooling provision as well as traffic congestion and health services. However, policy makers should also analyse the drivers of Tasmania’s current migration pattern changes, particularly how these motivations differ for people moving to and from the state.

In its latest report the Institute for the Study of Social Change highlights the need to build on Tasmania’s population strategy to ensure it is both bold in its attempts to slow population ageing and realistic in its acceptance of an ageing population.

Such a strategy must be aided by a greater understanding of current population trends and must plan for, adapt to, and embrace the many opportunities of ageing.

Dr Lisa Denny is a research fellow with the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. Her latest report Insight Six: Positive signs, but how can we make it last? Tasmania’s changing population dynamics is available on the Institute’s homepage.

More media coverage of Dr Denny’s report:

Report shows a jump in young migrants to state, The Mercury December 14, 2018

Positive signs for the future of Tasmania’s youth population, The Advocate December 14, 2018

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