How we can secure our future in a changed world

By: George Megalogenis   |   Author & Journalist   |

I want us to think about the country we were becoming in 2019 before the pandemic shut our borders and closed us off from the rest of the world.

In the previous 10 years, we saw extraordinary population growth in two of our capital cities, led by Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, Sydney and Brisbane – two thirds of the population growth over the past 10 years was concentrated in those three capital cities. And Melbourne was leading the country in the growth story that was based on immigration, based on students and based on skilled workers. It was quite an extraordinary phase of growth when you look back over the long cycles of Australian growth: it’s comparable to the gold rush of the 1850s and certainly comparable with the first phase of post-war migration program from 1947 to 1971 when we literally doubled the share of the overseas-born population from 10 percent to 20 percent of the Australian population.

What has occurred over the past 10 years, was that Melbourne was able to move to a different growth trajectory to the one it had experienced in the 1980s, 1990s, and in the first decade of the 21st century. In rough terms, the city grew from 4 million to 5 million. In the same period, the population of Australia grew from 21 million to 25 million, so Melbourne was responsible for a quarter of all the growth across the country. The composition of that growth was that two-thirds came from overseas, 10 percent from internal migration and the remainder was from natural increase. The two parts of the city that were booming – which were technically the two fastest-growing areas in Australia – were Melbourne’s western suburbs and its inner city. And when you cut and dice cities and regions across the country, Melbourne grew faster than anywhere else in Australia. It placed the city on a trajectory that had it surpassing Sydney’s population by the middle of this decade.

Now that would have created an intriguing identity shock for the country because as we know, for the last century and a bit, the country’s been run out of Sydney in a commercial sense, and in a political sense Melbourne has had its day, then Sydney has had its day, and more recently Queensland is the most significant part of Australia in an electoral sense.

But the idea that Melbourne was going to overtake everybody else was going to make us think again about who we are as a country. Because Melbourne’s population growth was leading a trend in Australia that was concentrating most of the growth in the southeast corner of the nation. The growth story of the previous 10 years led by migration had consequences for the rest of the country, which has been concerning me a lot as an analyst and social observer. Where Melbourne might have added a million people, the nearest city to its west – Adelaide – only added 100,00 people over that same period. Where Melbourne was able to collect 80 percent of all the migrants who chose either Melbourne or Adelaide, it was Adelaide who only got a smaller portion of it.

Not only that, Adelaide lost a lot of its young people to Melbourne. You had a situation where 10 years ago Melbourne and Adelaide were 4 million and 1.5 million respectively, but by 2020, Melbourne’s at 5.1 million and Adelaide’s at 1.6 million. Those two cities – and I tend to look at these two cities as the young and the old version of Australia in a sense – Adelaide is the first capital city on the mainland where the proportion of the population aged 65 and over now outnumbers children aged 0-14 years old. It’s the first capital city that’s beginning to look like a regional town or a country area.

Now that has quite profound implications for the way we view ourselves and the way we conduct ourselves because COVID and the shock of COVID – and the closure of borders – is going to do something which we haven’t experienced outside a world war: it’s going to accelerate the ageing of the population of Australia.

It’s going to make places like Adelaide, country areas around Victoria, NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Territories and especially Tasmania, much older than the capital cities. And what I mean by much older is that during the past 10 years most of the capital cities have been drawing most of the skilled migrants, but they’ve been sending retirees in the other direction, so they’re staying younger while the rest of the country is getting older. Because the rest of the country isn’t getting as many migrants as the capital cities are getting, the rest of the country compared to the capital cities is much older. That may seem no longer a big deal that we’ve put a clamp on the border and we’re not receiving mass migration for this year. The Treasury Estimates basically have us going from close to 200,000 people a year arriving in net terms from overseas to losing about 200,000 people in 2020 and 2021.

The problem is that it doesn’t actually change the age equation – it actually accelerates it, because young people still want to move where the jobs are, and the regions are not going to be able to replace those who leave the regions with skilled migrants from overseas.

My glass-half full scenario for Australia was that we were going to continue this massive experiment in skilled migration which was going to continue to diversify the population and slow the aging process. Eventually, the country would get to the position where it would figure out how it could share the benefits that had been concentrated in the south-east with the rest of the country. That’s no longer an option in the coming short-term but if we think about it again in five years from now, we may still be in a position to resume the story of the previous 10 years, the story from 2009 to 2019. I don’t want to put all the eggs in that particular basket because I think that might send us into a place where we are waiting, waiting, waiting for the world to re-open and for the world to be settled in the position of comfort that we enjoyed in 2019.

I don’t think a country like ours can afford to wait for something like that to happen. A country like ours has to get back on the growth horse and to get back on the diversity horse as quickly as is humanly possible.

This is an edited extract from George Megalogenis‘s opening keynote address at Philanthropy Australia’s National Conference 2021

On 5-6 May, after time to reflect and refresh, we will come back together online for two days of interactive, inspiring workshops. Participants will actively discuss, collaborate and think strategically as we collectively explore what the future needs from us, now. Register here.

Apr. 18, 2021

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