50 years of capital city population change

An overview of Australia's capital city population change between 1971 and 2021


Key statistics

  • The number of people living in Australia's capital cities more than doubled in the last 50 years.
  • The share of the country's population in the capitals also grew.
  • Melbourne and Sydney had the largest growth, Darwin and Canberra grew the fastest.
  • Sydney and Melbourne had their first population decline in 2020-21, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The official ABS estimated resident population (ERP) series for capital cities commenced in 1971. The release of 2021 estimates now enables the story of 50 years of population change in the capitals to be told.

Capital city population change

The population of Australia's capital cities more than doubled in the past 50 years, increasing by 8.7 million people. In 1971, 8.6 million Australians lived in a capital city. By 2021, this number had increased to 17.3 million people. 

Between 1971 and 2021:

  • Melbourne had the largest population growth (up by 2.4 million people), followed by Sydney (2.2 million)
  • Hobart (93,900) and Darwin (109,800) had the smallest population growth
  • Darwin (up by 282%) was the fastest growing capital, followed by Canberra (200%) and Perth (194%)
  • Adelaide (59%) and Hobart (60%) had the slowest growth
Capital cityERP at 30 June 2021Change 1971-2021 (no.)Change 1971-2021 (%)
All capitals17,252,8768,696,407101.6

Share of state population change

Over the last 50 years, the proportion of the country's population living in the capital cities increased from 65% in 1971 to 67% in 2021. 

Among the states and territories, between 1971 and 2021:

  • Darwin's share of the Northern Territory's population increased the most, from 45% to 60%
  • Western Australia was the state with the highest proportion of its population living in a capital in 2021, increasing from 71% to 80%
  • Hobart's share of Tasmania's population increased from 39% to 44%, but remains the lowest capital city share of all states and territories
  • Brisbane was the only capital city to decrease its share of state population, from 52% to 49%

Annual capital city population change

Sydney and Melbourne

  • Melbourne is closing the gap with Sydney. In 1971, Sydney had 409,000 more residents than Melbourne. By 2021, this difference had fallen to 283,600. 
  • Between 1971 and 2001, Sydney grew at a similar overall rate (36%) to Melbourne (34%). From 2001 to 2021, Melbourne grew at a faster overall rate (42%) than Sydney (28%). 
  • In 2020-21, Sydney and Melbourne both had their first decline in the 50 year series. This was largely due to the closure of the international border and changes to internal migration patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth

  • Brisbane and Perth had a similar growth trajectory over the 50 years. 
  • Perth's population overtook Adelaide in 1984 and has continued to grow at a faster rate ever since. In 2021, Perth's population was 56% more than Adelaide. 
  • In 2020-21, Brisbane recorded it's slowest growth rate (0.7%) in the 50 year series. 

Hobart, Darwin and Canberra

  • In 1971, the population of Canberra and Hobart was similar. Since then, Canberra has consistently grown at a faster rate and by 2021 had 202,500 more residents than Hobart.
  • Darwin's population declined between 1974 and 1975 (-32%) due to evacuations following Cyclone Tracy but recovered the following year (growing by 34% in 1975-76).
  • While Darwin had the fastest overall growth rate from 1971 to 2021, its growth slowed significantly in the last four years.

For more information see Regional population, 2021 and Historical population.

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