Recent population decline in Northern Territory (News Backgrounder 25/2/03)

On Tuesday 18 February 2003, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest estimates of the resident population in "Population, Australian States and Territories, September 2002" (ABS cat. no. 3239.0.55.001). The report is freely available on the ABS website

This News Backgrounder provides additional information about the trends and directions with the Northern Territory population.

Why is the NT population changing?

The population at any point in time is subject to 5 changes:

    • babies are born;

    • people die;

    • people move within Australia;

    • people come from overseas to live in Australia for 12 months or more; and

    • Australian residents leave Australia to live overseas for 12 months or more.

All of these changes have impact on the Northern Territory population, however, some have greater impact than others. The most significant factors have been the excess in the number of births over the number of deaths (referred to as natural increase), and that over the last 5 years more people have been leaving the Northern Territory to live in other parts of Australia that have been arriving to live in the Northern Territory.

Figure 1. Estimated Resident Population, Northern Territory
30 June 1971 to 30 June 2002
Graph - Figure 1. Estimated Resident Population, Northern Territory 30 June 1971 to 30 June 2002

The Northern Territory continues to have the highest fertility rate of all Australian States and Territories consistently above 2.1 babies per woman, compared to 1.7 babies per woman for the whole of Australia. However, the Territory also has the highest death rate after taking account of the age differences between the population of the States and Territories. Over recent years there has been around 2,800 more births than deaths each year in the Northern Territory resulting in a natural increase of around 1.4% each year.

More people have been leaving the Northern Territory to live in other parts of Australia than have been moving to the Northern Territory from interstate. With the exception of the three calendar years from 1995 to 1997, the Northern Territory has been losing population interstate as far back as 1986. In 2001-2002 17,000 people left the Territory to live interstate and the numbers have ranged from 16,000 to 19,000 since 1988. The departure of large numbers of people from the Northern Territory each year is not new.

From 1988 the number of people arriving in the Northern Territory increased from 15,600 to a peak in 1996 of 19,100. However, since then, the number of arrivals have been decreasing gradually to 14,900 in 2001-2002. Together, interstate arrivals and departures resulted in a net loss of population of 2,800 in 2001-2002, the largest loss of population interstate from the Territory since 1987-88, and the second highest loss since 1974-75 following Cyclone Tracy.

The impact of net overseas migration on the Territory's population has varied considerably over the last 20 years. Net overseas migration is the difference between the number of people coming to Australia to live for 12 months or more (including Australian citizens returning after a long term absence overseas) and the number of people leaving Australia to live overseas for 12 months or more (including adjustments for changes in intentions). During the 1980s the Territory gained a net 1,000 people a year from overseas except for 1982-83 when this dropped to 400. During the 1990s the number has been more variable, ranging from 40 in 1992-1993 to a high of 1,000 in 1998-1999 from which point it has since been declining.

Figure 2. Population growth rates, Northern Territory and Australia,
September 1982 to September 2002
Graph - Figure 2. Population growth rates, Northern Territory and Australia, September 1982 to September 2002

As can be seen from Figure 2, whilst the Northern Territory had a population growth considerably above that for all of Australia in the first half of the 1980s, the growth rate dropped below the National level in the late 1980s. Growth was reasonably strong in the late 1990s but has dropped again below the Australian level in recent years.

How ABS prepares resident population estimates

A Population Census is conducted every five years and the last Census was conducted on 7 August 2001. The data from the Census was used to prepare the resident population estimates using the 30 June 2001 as the new base for later periods. To make this estimate a number of adjustments are made to the Census data.

1 NT residents temporarily in other parts of Australia and counted there are added back to the NT population and likewise residents from other States counted in the NT are removed from the NT population estimates.

2 International visitors to the Northern Territory that were counted in the Census are removed and NT residents who were temporarily overseas and missed the Census are added.

3 An estimate of the net undercount at the time of the Census is made.

4 There is an allowance for population change between 30 June and 7 August 2001.

To estimate the net undercount, the main source of information is a post enumeration survey conducted by the ABS immediately after the Census together with demographic analysis to refine these adjustments. The 2001 net undercount adjustment for the NT undercount was 4.0%. To take account of those people missed in the Census, some 7,500 was added to the Census count for the NT.

As new statistical information becomes available for periods after 30 June 2001, whether from the next Census or other sources (such as the NT Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages or Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) this is taken into account and the population estimates are prepared for later reference dates.

Census accuracy

The Australian Census is recognised as one of the best in the world.

In relation to the accuracy of the Census:

1 The ABS uses local collectors who know their areas and communities.

2 The ABS puts a lot of effort into creating awareness of the census across the whole community, and the high level of support shown by the community for the census is a key reason for its success.

3 ABS also takes account of the few forms that are not collected, and those people who are away from home on census night.

4 ABS recognises the unique nature of the NT population, including remote Indigenous communities, and account for this in our enumeration and estimation processes.

The ABS also has an ongoing Census quality management and evaluation program so as to ensure the Australian Census remains world class and remains relevant to information needs of government and the community.

Christmas Island's population and why it is relevant to the NT

For electoral purposes, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Island are included with the population of the Northern Territory. The population of Christmas Island has been declining since 1996 when it was 1,830. It was estimated to be 1,440 in September 2002.