As a youngster in Social Studies class, I remember being regaled with stories of the Northward Drift, that well-known phenomenon of people moving from the South Island to the North Island, and to Auckland from everywhere that wasn’t Auckland. How we thrilled to the tales of those intrepid folk, heading north on their oxen-drawn wagons (we assumed) to the land of plenty. However, by the time I was learning about it in the late ’90s or thereabouts, it wasn’t really happening any more. Tables from Statistics New Zealand show that, on a net basis, people have been moving from the North Island to the South Island since the late ’80s (and the good people at Stats NZ have also written a good “mythbusters” article on it). It took a devastating earthquake to reverse the trend, with the South Island finally losing people to the North Island again in the five years to 2013:
As for Auckland, it took a little while longer to follow the trend, but Auckland has been losing population to other regions since the late ’90s. I wrote last year that
[Auckland has] had a decade of negative migration, in domestic (or “internal”, i.e. within NZ) terms. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues when the 2013 census results come out. The “northward drift” of population, which certainly has been a factor in the past, doesn’t seem to be happening any more.
Well, the 2013 census results are out, and they do indeed show a continuation of this trend – although it has slowed significantly.
This leads to the inevitable media coverage on “Aucklanders moving to [insert other town or city here]”. Google this for Tauranga or Hamilton and you’ll see these articles getting written at least once a year for each city – it’s a reliable page-filler and it’s easy enough to find a couple of case studies to interview.
Now, the “net” numbers shown here represent the difference between two much larger numbers – total internal immigrants, and total internal emigrants. These numbers were each around 60,000 for the five years to March 2013 – what we’re seeing is just the net result of fluctuations (or trends) in each of these numbers.
The articles (and the people mentioned in them, including real estate agents and so on) usually make the mistake of thinking about these migration flows as being one way. They’re not. Of course real estate agents in Tauranga will notice home buyers moving from Auckland – and vice versa, if anyone had bothered to ask the agents in Auckland. However, the effect will be much more noticeable in the smaller city, because Hamiltonians will notice a couple of thousand new residents coming from Auckland, whereas it’ll be a bit harder to see that when the new residents get spread around a city with ten times the population.
Even so, we’re now looking at a fairly well established trend which has generally been heading in one direction for the last 30 years. It’s probably safe to say that overall, more Aucklanders will keep leaving for other parts of New Zealand than the reverse.
However, it’s worth pointing out that these numbers just aren’t that big in the context of Auckland. We’re talking about a net loss of 4,653 people over the last five years, whereas Auckland is generally growing at 20,000 to 25,000 people each year (and probably faster at the moment). In the graph below, I’ve broken down Auckland’s overall population growth into gains from internal migration, international migration, and “natural increase” (births minus deaths). Note that my data for those other two items only goes back 20 years.
Compare those three elements of Auckland’s population growth, and it becomes pretty obvious why it’s much more important for us to analyse and understand the factors behind international migration, and natural increase. For other towns and cities, internal migration can be pretty important – it’s a key driver of growth in Hamilton and Tauranga, for example – but for Auckland, it’s pretty small stuff.