Migration vital for northern Australia, and national security

Nowhere in Australia are population and skills shortfalls more apparent than in the north which is heavily dependent on overseas migration to sustain both, and to boost the region’s contribution to national security.

It is good that the federal government’s new migration strategy recognises and responds to markedly different population trends and skills deficits in regional Australia compared to major cities. The strategy specifies actions tailored to the needs of regional Australia, including longer-term population planning with state and territory governments, increased skilled migration and faster visa processing for regional migrants.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the migration strategy will help ameliorate the chronic workforce and skills shortages in northern Australia and persistent population outflows to other parts of the nation.

While many big city dwellers may be anxious about housing and infrastructure deficits exacerbated by post-pandemic population growth, people of northern Australia remain highly dependent on strong overseas migration to deliver all manner of services, provide skilled workforces to sustain economic activity, and support populations of cities and towns. A visit to any health care facility underscores the dependence of northern Australian health systems on skilled migrants.

The north, with more than half Australia’s land area but just 5% of its population and with a critical role to play in national security, should have the south of Australia keenly interested in growing its population, economy and capabilities.

Analysis of 2022 ABS population growth and movement data for local government areas of northern Australia shows trends across the region that underline the vital role of overseas migration. Queensland hosts 74% of the 1.3 million northern population, with the Northern Territory just 19% and northern Western Australia a mere 7% at 95,000 people, in an area larger than NSW.

While northern population growth at 1.2% a year is about the same as in the rest of regional Australia, it’s the makeup of that growth that’s startling. In the 12 months to mid-2022, only 60 more people moved to northern Australia from elsewhere in the nation than moved away. The NT and northern WA lost 2,560 and 566 ‘emigrants’ respectively. Inbound overseas migration of 6,177 people across northern Australia was vital to sustaining its population and workforce. Natural increase (births minus deaths) was 9278 in the year.

If not for overseas migration, the population growth outcome across northern Australia would have been an anaemic 0.7%, and negative in the NT.

This is not just an issue for small towns in the bush. Large regional cities like Rockhampton, Townsville and Darwin rely on overseas migration to keep them functioning as regional hubs and able to service their own populations adequately. Overseas migration to these cities contributes more to growth and maintenance of skill bases than domestic migration. In greater Darwin, overseas migration was the largest contributor to its 0.7% population growth in 2021–22, not natural increase.

Overseas migration to northern Australia is also important for national security. Prosperity across the north makes for a more secure north. The role of Townsville and Darwin as the principal northern defence hubs for Australia should sharpen the focus on the importance of overseas migration to sustaining them.

High population churn is another feature of northern Australia’s demography. The Northern Territory’s annual churn rate is infamously the equivalent of a million residents leaving and entering Victoria each year. Every five years, one-third of the NT population changes. Even Cairns, renowned for its tropical lifestyle, experienced 28,000 residents leaving and arriving in 2021–22, the equivalent of 18% of its population. The level of domestic migration churn in the north is several times higher than for overseas migration.

Such turnover erodes skills bases, stability of employees for businesses and community continuity. It also can severely degrade delivery of critical services such as health care.

On the other hand, arrivals of overseas migrants have helped many communities in northern Australia become vibrantly multicultural. Nearly half of Darwin’s people, for example, are born overseas or have both parents born overseas.

A feature obvious to visitors is the multicultural homogeneity of northern city demographics, rather than enclaves of cultures evident in parts of larger cities.

Populations in the north are generally younger than in the rest of Australia. That reflects the nature of employment opportunities but is also a driver of the rate of out-migration. Often, the pull is towards family and friends in the south, particularly as people start to form families or to seek new job opportunities. For overseas migrants, larger diaspora communities in the rest of Australia can be an attraction to move.

Risks of city-driven changes to migration policy are mitigated by designated area migration agreements (DAMAs), which are in place across much of northern Australia, including the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of WA, the whole of the Northern Territory, Far North Queensland and Townsville.

DAMAs are five-year agreements between the Australian Government and regional representative bodies to provide access to more overseas workers than are available under the national skilled migration program. Under DAMAs, businesses can establish individual labour agreements. Lists of occupations eligible for employer sponsorship under DAMAs are more extensive than national skills lists, reflecting the different labour shortages in regional areas.

The Northern Territory DAMA has recently been extended for one year to the end of 2024 while a new DAMA is negotiated. Other northern Australia DAMAs have several years to run.

A strategic approach to recruitment of overseas migrants is needed to improve their retention. The NT prioritises migrants from nations and regions that already have substantial diasporas living in the territory. A government and business delegation recently travelled to the south Indian state of Kerala to conclude an economic cooperation agreement. Kerala provides many skilled workers to the NT, particularly for the health sector, and is a source of chain migration where family and friends seek to join those already in the territory.

Effective education, training and employment strategies are also needed to fully activate young and migrant workforces alike. A 2023 Infrastructure Australia report on market capacity for construction of infrastructure highlighted underutilisation of migrant engineers, with 47% actively seeking an engineering job in 2021.

Improving liveability in northern Australia is also vital to retain domestic and overseas migrants. Research into factors behind decisions to stay or leave reveal that availability and quality of education, health and family services are key determinants, as is availability, diversity and affordability of housing. Crime and antisocial behaviour have become growing concerns over recent years in many communities across the north.

Townsville’s liveability strategy identifies three critical factors: residents feeling safe, socially connected and included; environmental sustainability; and access to affordable and diverse housing options connected to employment, shopping, parks and community services.

The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan specifically recognised the liveability imperative in northern Australia in its recommendations for approaches to infrastructure to support communities.

The AIP also called for closer, long-term cooperation between all levels of government and with business and community bodies in ‘place-making’ in northern communities.

While ongoing strong flows of overseas migrants will be required to sustain and secure northern Australia for years to come, Australia’s success in building communities that are better able to retain residents for longer will be a key factor in growing northern populations and skill bases, and consequently reinforcing security.