Turning NT staff migration tide 'needs creative approach' 

Dr Tom Wilson

The Northern Territory Government may have to become even more creative in its approach to stemming the flow of people out of the NT workforce, the Charles Darwin Symposium was told by a leading researcher into population change.

Dr Tom Wilson told Friday’s gathering in Alice Springs that the NT Government’s approach to reducing migration turnover through policy intervention could have some slight benefits, but it was likely to be more successful if it accepted high migration turnover but managed it better, focused on increasing the size of the NT economy and maintained the Territory’s high fertility rates.

Dr Wilson, Senior Research Fellow with the School of Social and Policy Research, spoke about two on-going research projects which will help to address the high level of population turn-over in the Territory.

“Levels of migration into and out of the Territory are very high relative to population size and higher than for any other state or territory,” he said.

During the past 20 years, the NT net migration averaged zero, with all population growth occurring from the birth rate out-stripping the death rate, he said.

His NT Mobility Project is endeavouring to understand the drivers of migration in the NT in order to inform policy. The ARC Linkage Project with NT Treasury and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is investigating the patterns and processes of migration to and from the NT.

Dr Wilson said a recent survey indicated that 65% of people moving to the NT did so for work-related reasons, while 20% said they moved to become closer to family, friends or their partners.

The remainder moved to the Territory for a variety of other reasons including wanting a sea change, some came to visit and stayed, education, and the weather.

Of those who moved for work reasons, most said they were attracted not by higher wages, but by the opportunity for career advancement and to gain more experience.

One-fifth of survey respondents said they moved to the Territory because of personal relationships.

A significant proportion of people moving to the NT were “returning home”.

“This is not really a reason for migration as such, but it is a reminder that many movers to the NT are returnees,” Dr Wilson said.

Some 48% of people who were surveyed by telephone and who had moved to the NT between 1997 and 2006 had lived in the NT previously, either because they were NT-born or had moved to the NT before.

Most people who left the Territory reported they did so for work-related reasons, to be closer to family and because of the climate.

Other reasons given for moving included education, the cost of living in the NT, time for a change, and anti-social behaviour.

Almost 50% of those surveyed, however, said they could be persuaded to stay in the Territory. The largest single persuader to stay was if pay and employment were better.

Others said they would be persuaded to stay if education opportunities were better, if the NT had a lower cost of living and if their families were living in the NT.

Dr Wilson said migration to and from the NT was complex and was not due to one factor.

“Individual and family move/stay decisions are made within a wider context that encompasses the labour market, decisions of companies/organisations, the housing market, personal networks and the needs of other family members,” he said.

“The size, structure and operation of the NT economy are key to understanding migration to and from the Territory.”

The NT was characterised by a small economy, limited types of industry available, and employment practices of major employers which leant toward fixed term contracts and postings.

“Even for people who are motivated to move for non-economic reasons, the availability of employment is often a facilitating factor,” Dr Wilson said.

His preliminary projections for the NT population in 20 years time was about 95,000 Indigenous people, up from 67,000 currently, and 196,000 non-Indigenous people, up from 147,000.

Dr Wilson said he expected Indigenous life expectancy to continue to increase and that most population growth was expected to come from natural increases rather than through migration.

Three of the greatest risks to NT population growth over the next two decades were if overseas migration dropped, fertility rates fell and interstate competition for workers.