Melbourne’s population growth means it could soon overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city, which will have huge social and political implications nationally. By Max Opray.

Melbourne set to overtake Sydney

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel project.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel project.
Credit: Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

Steve Bracks sees it as a change that will reshape Australia. The former Victorian premier notes the projection that Melbourne’s population could overtake Sydney’s in as few as five years, and says it will redefine how power is distributed.

Bracks points to an earlier period of rapid population growth in south-east Queensland, which led to more federal seats being created in the region and in turn helped the Coalition win elections and enact a conservative agenda. That shift is happening again.

“Now you’re likely to see new seats on the outskirts of Melbourne,” he says, pointing to the federal electorate of Fraser in the outer north-west of Melbourne, contested for the first time at the 2019 federal election and won by Labor.

“Melbourne is clearly the most progressive part of the nation, and greater population growth means that influence will be felt across the country.”

Bracks says Melbourne has had higher population growth for years, which he attributes to a consequence of greater vibrancy and liveability. “When I go to Sydney it’s hard to see what’s happening anywhere,” he says. “But go to the laneways of Melbourne or outside the city centre to Fitzroy and St Kilda – it’s alive.”

During Bracks’ time in power – from 1999 to 2007 – he pushed for Melbourne to attract a greater share of overseas migrants. He says Melbourne becoming Australia’s largest city is not so much a precursor to becoming the “go-to city” but a consequence of it.

At the same time as Bracks was pushing for growth, then New South Wales premier Bob Carr was trying to reduce the rate at which Sydney’s population was expanding. Carr is disdainful of the idea that being the largest city in Australia is something to which politicians should aspire.

“This occasional story of Melbourne overtaking in terms of population, it never excites much opinion in Sydney,” Carr says. “That’s because Sydney is confident of itself, doesn’t feel threatened. And also, because there’s no real constituency in Sydney for wanting to see the city grow much more.

“I actually don’t think it’s much different from Melbourne in that respect.”

Carr says rapid population growth means higher-density living, smaller backyards and longer commute times. “More towers, more urban sprawl,” he says. “Why would anyone lament the fact the pressure has come off?”

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, Melbourne’s fast-growing population is the closest it’s been to Sydney since 1930. It is now just 205,000 residents behind Sydney’s 5.3 million.

Over the 2019-20 period, Melbourne added 80,088 residents, while Sydney added 57,107 – the smallest annual growth period for both cities for years, largely due to Covid-19 border restrictions.

The pandemic has introduced an added element of uncertainty into forecasts, but the Centre for Population remains confident that Melbourne will assume the mantle of Australia’s largest conurbation in 2026-27, with a population of 6.2 million by 2030-31 compared with Sydney’s six million.

Forecasters predict Victoria’s share of Australia’s net overseas migration will continue to increase, to 38 per cent by 2030-31, compared with NSW’s 31 per cent. This additionally contributes to Melbourne’s faster population growth due to higher birth rates among migrants.

The horse race-style coverage of Melbourne’s gradual gain on Sydney typically treats this phenomenon as another manifestation of the rivalry between Australia’s two major cities. But for demographers and analysts, the matter of one city overtaking another as the biggest in the land represents something more significant.

Dr Ben Gussen, of Swinburne Law School, the author of Axial Shift: The Territorial Evolution of Australia and the United States, tells The Saturday Paper that the moment Melbourne overtakes Sydney will mark a fundamental change in how both cities are perceived. “Melbourne, in this sense, is ushering in a new consciousness of the Commonwealth, where a new chapter is being written outside Sydney,” he says. “As it overtakes Sydney in population, it will also now be perceived as the centre of Australia’s business, cultural and political life.”

Melbourne will from that point attract more of the accountancy, advertising, finance, and law businesses that the Globalization and World Cities Research Network uses to measure a city’s global integration. Sydney is classified as an Alpha city, while Melbourne is Alpha minus.

The Victorian capital will also enjoy greater weight in bidding for infrastructure and international events, Gussen says. He predicts a feedback loop will form in the minds of nonresidents, who will consider why Melbourne has overtaken Sydney and rationalise why people are moving there, in turn deciding to do so themselves.

For an extreme example of what can happen when one city overtakes another, Gussen says, Australians don’t have to look far. He points to the example of Dunedin in New Zealand, which during the 19th-century gold rush rose to become the largest city in the country.

“In the early history of New Zealand, Dunedin dominated in terms of size,” Gussen says. “Once Auckland overtook Dunedin, absolutely everything shifted to Auckland.”

Today, Auckland is a city of 1,470,100; Dunedin is an urban centre of 128,800.

Sydney is obviously far more established than the 19th-century colonial outpost of Dunedin, and similarly overtook Melbourne in the early 20th century, but a transfer of power is still expected, and some say is already well under way.

Demographer Kim Johnstone, an associate director at consultancy Astrolabe Group, says that the Centre for Population prediction of Melbourne overtaking Sydney in 2026 depends on a number of factors, given the uncertainty of Covid-19.

She notes, however, that if you measure population by significant urban area where there is concentrated development, as opposed to the Greater Capital City Statistical Area methodology used by the ABS, Melbourne has in fact already exceeded Sydney.

Johnstone says that more important than the amount of growth is understanding what is driving it, and where specifically it is occurring.

“The most recent data release from the ABS showed notably different rates of growth across Sydney, for example, with high growth in Western Sydney and in high-density in-fill suburbs close to the CBD,” she says. “The issue for our two major cities is less how fast they are growing compared to each other, but how is the city growing across different suburbs and meeting the needs of those suburbs?”

Gussen also sees this as a challenge, highlighting the difficulty of managing this under the patchwork of dozens of councils that govern both Sydney and Melbourne. He proposes either merging councils or admitting the two major cities as states in their own right. “[There is a] need for super-cities similar to Auckland or Vancouver, where all local government councils are amalgamated under one umbrella,” he says.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that by 2050, Melbourne will be home to 9.61 million people. Sydney is projected to hit 9.08 million.

By then, Bracks suggests, the demographic shift will “embed in the national psyche” that AFL is the country’s pre-eminent football code – not the Sydney choice of rugby league.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Size does matter for Melbourne".

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