Growing pains are real: new data reveals WA’s population is bigger than we thought

13/07/2023 | 4 mins
This article was written by Professor Amanda Davies, Head of School of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia.


With record low rental vacancies, low unemployment and long wait times for many services and trades, it will come as no surprise to most that Western Australia’s population has grown, and grown fast.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently reviewed its population data and has revised the population figures for WA.

The ABS data has confirmed WA has the nation’s highest population growth rate at 2.3 per cent, compared to a national average of 1.9 per cent.

But what this new data also shows is that WA’s population is even bigger than what experts thought.

Between the 2016 and 2021 Census, our state gained approximately 20,000 more residents than previously thought, through interstate moves. Overall, there are approximately 50,000 more people living in WA than forecast and the new data shows the number of people who moved to WA during the COVID period was higher than previously estimated.

What all this means is that WA is growing, it is growing larger than projected and the growth has come quickly.

So how did people get missed in the population counts?

The ABS works out the size and demographic characteristics of our population using the Census which is undertaken every five years. Australia’s Census is regarded as one of the most reliable in the world. But we only run the Census every five years and a lot can happen in five years. Therefore, the ABS provides population updates to show how the population changes between census periods. To work out the changes between census periods, the ABS uses:

  • Medicare records – to show interstate and regional moves every quarter
  • International arrival and departure records – to show international moves every quarter
  • Birth and death registrations - to show natural population changes every month

During COVID lockdown periods, data on interstate and regional migration revealed that a lot of people seemed to be moving interstate and intrastate — a lot more than normal.

This data was surprising given the border closures that restricted population movements both between states and within some states. While the ABS noted at the time that the data for internal migration was ‘implausibly high’, the data did spark public interest and some claims that Australia could be seeing a ‘city exodus’ as COVID drove people to pursue new, non-city based lifestyles. While this notion was quickly debunked, it was still the case that the internal migration data just did not seem right.

It turns out the ‘implausibly high’ internal migration rates were the result of people updating their Medicare records as they got vaccinated, and not because COVID prompted larger-than-normal numbers of people to pack up their city lives and move to regional destinations.

While it is understood that people do not always update their records in a timely manner, as long as the component of people being tardy in updating their records is stable, the data for internal migration has been broadly reliable. COVID prompted more people than normal to update their records, resulting in a spike.

Identifying this issue, the ABS temporarily suspended the release of internal migration data while it reviewed its methodology. This review came at a good time as the ABS had also recently received new data from the 2021 Census. In turn, the ABS has taken the opportunity to re-calculate the internal migration between states and the overall population for each state.

So how many people made the move west during the COVID years?

WA made international headlines for its hard border policy. But while it was hard to get into the State, it turns out it was not impossible. Figure 1 shows that in every quarter since March 2020 WA has had net positive population growth through interstate migration.

This growth was driven by both a decrease in the number of people leaving the State and an increase in the number of people moving to WA.

While it is not possible to distil how the hard border policy directly impacted migration flows at an aggregate level, it is interesting that in March 2020 WA’s six-year phase of net population loss through internal migration came to an end, with the State shifting to a net gain phase. 

Given WA was in a net loss phase leading into COVID, it was reasonable to project that as the borders reopened the State would again move into a net loss phase. It is not clear why the State continues to attract people from other parts of the country, but it is likely related to the strength of the economy as well as a positive shift in sentiment about WA’s appealing lifestyle.

Interstate migration data table

Will WA’s population continue to grow?

Based on past trends, it is clear that when WA’s economy is booming its population will grow. With the State’s natural population growth at below replacement levels, population growth will remain dependent on interstate and international migration.

WA’s population growth will likely continue to be centred in Perth, with regional cities and the South West absorbing a much smaller component of the growth.

While WA has recently enjoyed the benefits of strong interstate migration, it is possible that the State could become increasingly dependent on international migration. The growth pressure Perth is currently experiencing could start to negatively impact population growth from interstate migration. With interstate migrants’ typically highly skilled and of working age, this is a migration flow WA should seek to keep strong.

To maintain or grow interstate migration, there are some lessons that we can learn about managing population growth from Australia’s east coast mega cities. Sydney, for all its success as a global city and economic powerhouse, has been losing domestic population for 20 years.

While its population continues to grow through a combination of natural growth and international migration, every quarter more local residents leave Sydney than move to Sydney. The cost of living pressures, commute times and affordable housing shortages are all contributing factors to why local residents leave Sydney.

With Perth now facing some of these same growing pains, it is essential that we look and learn from Australia’s mega cities and put in place plans to ensure Perth remains a highly liveable city.  


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