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POPULATION SIZE AND TRENDS
Australia's resident population at June 2001 was estimated at 19.4 million people - an increase of more than 15 million since 1901, when the population was recorded at 3.8 million. The excess of births over deaths (also called natural increase) has been the main source of growth during this period. Another source of increase is net overseas migration.
Since June 1991, Australia's population has increased by more than 2 million. However, the rate of growth over the decade has been, on average, markedly slower than growth rates in most previous decades.
Since the early 1960s, falling fertility has led to a drop in the rate of natural increase. In 1901, a woman could be expected to give birth to around 3.5 children in her lifetime. Twenty years later, the expected number of births as measured by the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) had declined to 3.12 children. Since then, fertility rates have fluctuated considerably, the highest being 3.55 in 1961. In 2000, Australia had a TFR of 1.75 babies per woman.(SEE FOOTNOTE 1)
Australia is large in area. Compared with other countries, its population is small relative to its size. For every square kilometre of land there are only around 2 Australians. But this statistic hides the fact that 84% of the population is contained within the most densely populated 1% of the continent.
The majority of Australia's population is concentrated in two widely separated coastal regions. The larger of these is the east to south-east region, the smaller lies in the south-west parts of the continent.
New South Wales is the country's most populous State, accounting for a third of the total population in 2001. Of all Australia's States and the Territories, the populations of Queensland and the Northern Territory grew the fastest between 1991 and 2001 (by 23% and 19% respectively). South Australia and Tasmania had the slowest population growth over the period. South Australia grew by less than 4%, and Tasmania grew by less than 1%.(SEE FOOTNOTE 2)
The percentage of Australians living in rural areas has also declined in recent years. The rural population includes people living on private rural properties or in very small communities, and also refers to bounded localities (population clusters of 200 to 999 people). In 1911, 43% of Australians lived in rural areas; this proportion fell to 14% in 1976 and has stayed around this level since. Technological, social and economic changes have contributed to population decline in these areas.
POPULATION AGE AND SEX COMPOSITION
The age structure of the population has changed significantly over the last century. Decline in birth rates, changes in migration patterns and increases in life expectancy have meant that children aged 0-14 years now make up a smaller proportion of the population. Conversely, in 1901 only 4% of the population was 65 or over whereas by June 2001 this figure had risen to over 12%.
The balance between men and women has also changed over the last century. In 1901 there were 110 men for every 100 women (in part due to the relatively high proportion of Australian immigrants who were male). This gap has closed. At June 2001 there were slightly fewer men than women in Australia (101 women for every 100 men).
Source: Australian Demographic Statistics, Cat. no. 3010.0.
ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER POPULATION
Historically, there has been some difficulty in accurately measuring the size of Australia's Indigenous population. But in the last two decades, the likelihood of people identifying themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has increased. This has been the result of changing social attitudes, political developments, improved statistical coverage and a broader definition of Indigenous origin. In June 2001, the total Indigenous population was projected to be 427,000 - approximately 2% of Australia's total population.(SEE FOOTNOTE 3)
LINKS BETWEEN POPULATION AND PROGRESS
The size and shape of Australia's population influences, and is in turn influenced by, many aspects of progress considered in this publication. Some Australians believe the population should grow quickly to reach substantially higher levels by the end of this century - they point to economic and other benefits not just of a larger population but also of a growing population.
Others are of the view that Australia's environment cannot sustain a significantly larger population and that economic progress will be generated mainly through productivity enhancements, rather than just through an increase in the scale of economic activities.
Two of the environmental arguments advanced for stabilising our population are:
Arguments raised to counter these two views include the following.
Where people live also has important effects. Concentrating people within an area can have localised environmental effects, such as air pollution in cities. The concentration of people in the coastal areas of south-eastern Australia has also resulted in relatively high rates of land clearing for urban development, together with the need to provide water, sewerage and landfill sites.
The population's geographic and age distribution also influences, and is influenced by, the labour market, which in turn affects on our national income.
The proportion of the population that is employed provides a broad indicator of the degree of economic dependency in Australia - the relative sizes of the total population and of that part of the population engaged in paid work. Economic dependency may increase owing to, say, a rise in the number of unemployed or the number of people past retirement age. Between 1990-91 and 2000-01, the proportion of the Australian population that was employed rose from 44.6% to 47.3%.(SEE FOOTNOTE 4)
The age distribution of the population contributes to the demand for health and aged care services, as do changing patterns of mortality, fertility and migration. In turn, the ageing of the population reflects the increase in life expectancy.
Current ABS population projections indicate that Australia's population could range between 24 and 28 million people by 2051, if various assumptions for fertility, mortality and net overseas migration were to hold.(SEE FOOTNOTE 5) The population would have an older profile and there would be more dependent children and non-working older people per working adult. The proportion of the population aged between 15 and 64 could decline from about 67% to about 60%, according to the ABS projections.(SEE FOOTNOTE 7)
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all data in this commentary are from Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Year Book Australia 2001, Cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Australian Demographic Statistics, Cat. no. 3101.0, ABS, Canberra.
3 These are experimental projections of the Indigenous population. The projections are based on the 1996 Population Census and assume no change in the propensity of people to identify as an Indigenous person. The ABS also produces a 'high series' experimental projection, which projects the Indigenous population at 502,000 at June 2001. This projection uses an assumption that there has been an increase in the propensity of people to identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (an assumption based on the observed increase in the Indigenous population between the 1991 and 1996 Censuses which cannot be attributed to natural increase). For further details see Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Experimental Projections of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, Cat. no 2131.0, ABS, Canberra.
4 State of the Environment Advisory Council 1996, Australia - State of the Environment Report 1996, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001, Labour Force Australia, Cat. no. 6203.0, ABS, Canberra.
6 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Population Projections, Australia, 1999 to 2101, Cat. no. 3222.0, ABS, Canberra. ABS population projections use the estimated resident population at 30 June 1999 as a base population. Population projections are not predictions or forecasts. They simply show what would happen to Australia's population if a particular set of assumptions about future levels of births, deaths and net overseas migration were to hold for the next 50 to 100 years. The assumptions about levels of future fertility, mortality and migration are based on long-term trends, current debate, and possible future scenarios arising from research in Australia and elsewhere.
7 The forthcoming Intergenerational Report to be released by the Commonwealth Treasurer will assess the financial implications of the demographic and other changes that Australia may experience during the next 40 years.