(Image: Siggy Nowak)

Where are Australians from now? In many countries such a question is boring. In Australia the question of where we’re from is fascinating — because the answer keeps changing.

In 1891 three out of every 10 Australians were born overseas (and had arrived by ship!)

By 1947 the share of Australians born overseas had fallen enormously to one in every 10. But that was the low point. Today it has risen again to three in 10 Australians born abroad.

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While migration changes slowly, the countries we come from change fast. Once upon a time the major countries migrants came from were England, then Italy, Greece, Vietnam. Now south and central Asia are the focus, with migrants from India and Sri Lanka currently making up a major share of Australian migration.

The most recent data on migration are especially fascinating as they capture the period July 2019 to June 2020, and so include the onset of the pandemic. This is therefore the first official look into how the pandemic has affected the make-up of Australia’s immigration.

The first thing you notice in the data? The big group of people migrating to Australia is Australians.

I’m always travelling, I love being free, so I keep leaving the sun and the sea, but I still call Australia home. And when the world gets scary, I want to come home.

As the next graph shows, Aussies were flowing out into the rest of the world at a steady pace for many years. Aussies were everywhere. For a long time you couldn’t venture into a rural backwater or a financial centre in any part of the globe without some friendly person giving you a hearty “G’day”. Oaxaca to Siberia, Oxford to Shibuya, there would always be someone there in a Kathmandu fleece jumper, be they tourist, English teacher or fugitive Bitcoin trader.

These days the data suggest those people have come back home (or are still trying to). Almost 20,000 more Aussies came to Australia than left last financial year.

The pandemic has upset many long-standing patterns.

For example, net migration from China has reversed, with more Chinese-born people leaving Australia than coming to Australia. Many of these returns are likely to be students. Students will hopefully come back to Australia if vaccinations ever let us beat the pandemic back. But given the way Sino-Australian relations seem to have deteriorated, such a resumption of usual service is not guaranteed. We might get students back but not necessarily Chinese students. It will be interesting to see if this metric ever flips back to the positive.

Where are we going?

As the world became unsettled, so did Australia. Our usual eddies of interstate migration were muddled. The biggest change was the reversal of the polarity of the magnet that is Victoria. The southern state had been the second most popular state to come to for years, with Aussies flocking to Melbourne.

But the allure of graffiti, football and superior baristas suddenly faded in 2019-20. Especially since you couldn’t leave your house to see the graffiti, the football was being played in Queensland and the baristas were all furloughed at home on JobKeeper. (Yes I exaggerate — but I have licence! I am Victorian, I love it here, I lived through the lockdown. Please don’t roast me in the comments!)

What is interesting to observe is that the pandemic made no difference to Australians’ proclivity for leaving New South Wales. Presumably, once people realised the pandemic was not going to make house prices more affordable, the allure was lost and they all moved to Queensland. About 21,000 people left NSW in 2019-20, down only slightly from 22,000 in the year before.

Queensland, though? Everybody wants in. As the next chart shows, Brisbane is far and away the state capital to which everyone wants to move. The chart shows net internal migration, i.e. movement inside Australia by people who already live here. That combo of warm weather and relatively affordable property was already attractive, but when you throw in success against COVID-19, Queensland looks even sunnier.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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