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Apr 22, 2010

Tony Burke: lies, damned lies, and net migration figures

Population minister Tony Burke wants to make some things clear: there is no 2050 population target; natural growth rates are different to birth rate; and net migration rates are different to permanent migration rates.

The population debate involves three standard ways of presenting figures in misleading ways. No matter what your views are on the need for sustainable population levels, it’s helpful if discussions are based on accurate information.

Let’s be clear here: there is no 2050 population target; natural growth rates are different to birth rate; net migration rates are different to permanent migration rates.

You’ll hear the Liberal spokesman on immigration say the government has a target to reach 36 million people by 2050. Interestingly you won’t hear anyone from the government say the same thing. The reason is simple. There is no government 2050 population target.

The confusion on this came after the release of the Intergenerational Report. It was the third report of its type. The previous two had been under the previous government. It involved a projection of what would happen to Australia’s population if the next 40 years looked similar to the past 40 years.

So it included the rates of people settling in Australia, the increasing birth rate, increasing life expectancy and the rate of people leaving Australia. It came out with a projection that if recent trends continue, our population would be 36 million by 2050.

It was a projection. Not a target, not an ambition, not a policy.

That won’t stop the Liberal Party from claiming it’s all of the above, but it’s important as a starting point to know that neither side of politics has an arbitrary target for what our population should be in 2050.

The issue of natural growth rates versus birth rates is tricky but really important. National and state-by-state data will often compare the natural growth rate with the net migration figures. You end up with figures that, depending on where you are in Australia, say natural growth is about 30%-40% of population growth and net migration is the rest.

Then have a look at the way the ABS calculates population growth on its population calculator page. There the ABS adds a person to the population by birth every one minute and 46 seconds and adds a person by migration at the exact same rate. How can both be true?

Natural growth is births minus deaths. Net migration is immigrants (for more than a year) minus Australians moving overseas.

Grouping the figures this way carries a presumption that immigrants never die. Only people who are born here die and they never move overseas.

So when people talk about how many are added to our population through birth, it’s important they use the birth rate, not the natural growth rate if the information is going to be accurate.

Scott Morrison got his own party into much trouble talking about net migration against permanent migration. Each year in the Budget the government announces how many places will be available under the different categories of permanent migration. That provides the best guide of how many people are settling permanently in Australia. It was 182,450 in the last Budget.

The net migration figure can be interesting but it includes so many variables it becomes a pretty dodgy guide to any informed discussion on population. It counts how many people come to Australia for more than a year minus how many leave.

It includes a very large number of temporary visa holders. These visas are demand-driven and were established that way under the previous government. When our educational institutions can make more money from overseas students the numbers go up. When local skills shortages need to be filled from temporary visa holders, the numbers go up.

And when the visas expire for either of these categories, the visa holders go home. They can only stay permanently if they can fit within the permanent places, which are fixed in the Budget each year.  That’s why the permanent migration system provides the best guide.

There was a change in the methodology in 2006. The net figure before then only counted people who had stayed continuously in Australia for 12 months. This knocked out a lot of overseas students who would return home for a few weeks over summer. The new way of counting includes anyone who stays for 12 of the last 16 months, which means we now count a lot more students and backpackers within the net figure. So it’s impossible to compare like with like for more than four years.

There was also an unusual phenomenon during the global recession where fewer Australians moved overseas to find work and a significant number of ex-pats returned home. That movement also forms part of the net migration figure but it’s a bit much to use Australians returning home as part of an argument about immigration and population policies.

Sorry this is horribly detailed and all about statistics.

But if we are going to have a reasoned debate on how population impacts on growth, jobs, infrastructure and the environment, it’s important to clarify exactly what the base statistics mean.

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10 thoughts on “Tony Burke: lies, damned lies, and net migration figures

  1. paddy

    [Sorry this is horribly detailed and all about statistics.]
    For God’s sake don’t apologise TB.
    Details and statistics are what you *should* be explaining.

    In fact I’m sure I heard a faint shout of joy from Possum Comitatus.
    (Despite the fact he’s off on his holidays.) 🙂

  2. Bela

    Unfortunately Tony, it was the failure of your leader to communicate clearly on the benefits of a larger population and why it is inevitable in our growing nation that allowed the Hansonite rump in the Opposition to exploit the issue – although so far to little real (as opposed to media) effect, fortunately.

    Get on the front foot and remind everyone that Australia is wealthy and strong today because the politicians of 1945 knew they could not continue to possess this continent without a strategy for developing it and growing it’s population beyond the 7 million it was at the time. This imperative has not changed that much, in fact with the rise of China and India it is probably more compelling now than it was then.

  3. davidk

    Thank you Tony for the details and statistics delivered in a comprehensible manner. No chance of getting these out to the wider populace I suppose?

  4. Roger

    It is time we heard from Ministers more often, as Mr Burke has done here, instead of Kevin Rudd taking the limelight as it suits him and his agenda. ( Note Crikey, when was the last time the PM wrote a piece here) He may be ahead of the Mad Monk in the polls as preferred PM , hardly a contest, but perhaps the round faced one should stop and contemplate we out here as the general public are interested in what they, the Ministers, have to say. OK we get the odd interview on the 7-30 report , Lateline, and localised stuff around the country but in the main its the no 1 honcho who hogs the limelight. Perhaps KR should remember one swallow a Summer does not make.
    Incidentally while on leaders. Why is The Mad Monk surrounding himself with youngish effeminate looking, sounding, spokespersons as in immigration, the insulation , his manager of opposition bizzo in the house, health (yuk) and so it goes on. Perhaps he wishes to be reminded of his closeted days spent in the company of the Jesuits in the seminary. Merely a muse on my part.

  5. David Hand

    When a minister is in the media pushing a rebut to “Coalition lies” it’s a sure sign that the government is worried, particularly whan he plays the wounded innocent, battling the evil deception of those reprobates on the other side of politics. But when he says,

    “36 million by 2050. It was a projection. Not a target, not an ambition, not a policy. That won’t stop the Liberal Party from claiming it’s all of the above”,

    he conveniently omits recent statements like the prime minister saying something like “I believe in a big Australia and I make no apology for it” Hmmmm, that smells like a sort of target to me. Because ALP focus groups have told them this was a blunder, the Minister for Population rushes into the media to change the spin. Oh and of course, it’s all Tony’s fault.

  6. johana

    Whilst you’re at it, how about we get some real unemployment statistics too. Not much point trying to draw conclusions about the effect of immigration on areas of the economy and environment when the reported statistics about those are, to be blunt, a load of rubbish engineered for political reasons.

  7. Roger

    David Hand and Johana…any chance you have anything of substance to say, backed up by facts and figures. I admire your love affair with the refugee from the monastry, the father of a love child, the pre marital sex indulger, the great confessional attendee, the wonder father who displays his daughters in the media, the liar extraordinay, the foul mouthed former minister, who who who, what more of his un catholic traits do you want. You suck up to the great hypocrite ever to grace the floors of politics, fair suk of the sav.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Roger, I think David was trying to point out (using an actual quote from the PM) that whatever the population statistics mean, Kevin Rudd will be happy with a big number. Tony Burke didn’t actually mention any number that he wanted to be seen with but obviously he’s backing Rudd’s position. Because growth is good for everything economic, not-so-good for quality of life in the suburbs (unless you spend heaps on infrastructure) and definitely not good at all for water, biodiversity, carbon reduction or environmental sustainability. Tony Burke and Kevin Rudd are mainly interested in the first (tri-weekly), will work hardish at the second (try weekly) and leave Peter Garrett (or someone even less relevant) to worry about the last (try weakly). Now there’s some facts and figures.

  9. Roger

    Cheers Hugh, thanks.

  10. Tom McLoughlin

    If a student stays for a year, and leaves, and is replaced by another, what’s the different. It’s still in effect net immigration. If the education sector has expanded by tens of thousands, who really believes it will contract again?